Campari: The Italian Elixir is Having its Main Character Moment

Photograph: George Voronov

Words: Shamim de Brún

We are in the midst of an aperitif renaissance. There have been more think pieces written about it than there have been micro trends on TikTok. Between TikTok, Instagram, and YouTube alone there are millions of views on the history and how-to’s of the aperitivo. While this spans a vast expanse of drinks a single spirit stands as the embodiment of style, sophistication, and conviviality: Campari.


The Cultural Cachet

Hailed as the sophisticated elder sibling of the Aperol, Campari is as symbolically Italian as Guinness is Irish. While Aperol went on to be more well known, Campari stands tall as the embodiment of ‘if you know you know’. It’s the ‘I know a place’ of the spirits world. This red-hued elixir is an insider’s icon.

Campari is a brilliantly coloured spirit made of a proprietary blend of herbs and spices. Bitter-tasting, complex and lit with a deep red glow, Campari is one of those drinks that has an eternal appeal that’s become something of a cult drink. It’s eternally sophisticated and a little challenging. It’s the sort of order that’ll elicit an approving nod from bartenders the world over. These days Campari consumption, like Guinness, is seen to be a taste indicator. People drinking a Campari Spritz are seen to be more sophisticated, elegant, and somewhat intriguing.

Famous vagabonds and tastemakers all love Campari. Orson Welles, the maestro of cinema, was a discerning Campari cocktail connoisseur. A myriad of celebrities, including George Clooney and Kate Hudson, have been spotted relishing Campari cocktails. James Bond drank a Negroni when he wasn’t in the mood for a Martini. Anthony Bourdain was infamously a fan, as was Ernest Hemmingway. The arbiter of modern Italian chic, Stanley Tucci, is also a Campari man. Campari has always had cultural cachet. These days however it’s gone to new heights.

The Negroni Sbagliato had its fifteen minutes on the Internet last year, thanks to House of the Dragon star Emma D’Arcy. In case you weren’t on the internet that month here’s the recap. Co-stars Emma D’Arcy (Rhaenyra Targaryen) and Olivia Cooke (Alicent Hightower) appeared in an HBO Max interview discussing their favourite cocktails.

“What’s your drink of choice?” Olivia asks Emma.

“A Negroni,” Emma replies. “Sbagliato, with Prosecco in it.”

And, then… the internet lost its collective mind. Queue a run on Negroni Sbagliato everything from deserts, to cakes to jams. But what is it that gives the Negroni Sbagliato its signature taste? Campari.

@streamonmax I'll take one of each. #houseofthedragon ♬ a negroni sbagliato w prosecco l hbo max – Max

We all saw the cast of the White Lotus go hell for leather on the Spritzes which caused a surge in Aperol sales. Bigger fans will know of course that stars Meghann Fahy and Theo James were seen indulging in Campari-driven Negronis while filming.

In London, you can benchmark how hip an area is by how much Campari is drunk. In Peckham, there’s a dedicated Campari bar. If I look around my own circles in Dublin, I see my queer friends have recently adopted the Campari soda. The gays are always early adopters of the next big thing. So it wouldn’t surprise me if Campari is on track to Billie Eilish-level mainstream success. But for now, she is still in that ‘I listened to them before they were famous’ phase. Even if Campari has been around longer than the Italian state.


The Origin Story

The exact recipe for Campari is one of those closely guarded industry secrets. We do however know it contains a combination of ingredients including quinine, rhubarb, ginseng, orange peel, and cinchona bark, and probably many more. Like the Smarties we all grew up with before 2006, Campari’s renowned ruby hue came courtesy of crushed cochineal bugs. A detail that will echo in the annals of pub quiz lore for the rest of time.

For over a century and a half, Campari has been a living testament to Italy’s vibrant history. Conceived in 1860 in the picturesque town of Novara; a small village near Milan. It began its journey when Gaspare Campari conceived his famous Bitter, which proudly served at the Caffè Campari in the heart of Milan. However, it was his visionary son, Davide, who led the family business to new heights. His establishment of the iconic Camparino marked the genesis of the Milanese aperitif tradition.

The Aperitivo is now an Italian pre-dinner cultural institution which has a lot to recommend it. Despite that, it took its sweet time getting to us. In its homeland, aperitivo hour is an opportunity to meet friends before a meal as well as a time to wind down in the early evening and relax with a refreshing drink after work. It’s basically going for one after work, but it doesn’t spiral in the same way.

While aperitif culture took to the continent like ducks to Stephen’s Green’s pond it took a little longer to be adopted on our end. Recent years however has seen Ireland along with the UK and USA. It could be said that “the great Italian idea of enjoying one another,” finally caught on here. But it’s more likely that the adoption of it has more to do with the movement towards lower alcohol beverages. Unlike pints, aperitifs aren’t intended to be enjoyed all night. Going for an aperitivo with your friend after work is much more likely to be just the one.

“La Dolce Vita,” or “the sweet life,” has become synonymous with Campari. The phrase has been co-opted by the English language to represent this sort of relaxed, elegant Italian culture. The phrase came to English by way of the Federico Fellini movie of the same name. There is an iconic image of the legendary Fellini sipping a Campari on the set of this movie that became a symbol of the Dolce Vita era in Italy. The irony lies in Campari, the epitome of bitterness, becoming its muse. The association between Campari and La Dolce Vita is so potent that even Princeton University found it worthy of study.


The Cocktails

In 1932, the Campari Soda was born, a milestone that redefined the aperitif experience. From there it went on to dominate and become its own cultural phenomenon. It is the world’s first grab-and-go cocktail. Like Siracha, Campari and Soda’s bottle is so iconic that it’s instantly recognisable. The Campari soda’s modest ABV may well be key to its growing popularity, tapping into a trend toward lower-alcohol drinks, particularly among young people. Served over ice in a large glass and topped up generously with soda, the Campari Soda appeals to that growing breed of moderate millennials. It is, as chef and Campari devotee Jeremy Lee puts it in an interview with The Guardian, “a thirst quencher with a gentle canter attached”.

But by far the biggest reason Campari is an insider icon is because it is the only non-negotiable ingredient in a Negroni. The Negroni, in unambiguously cool. It’s shorthand for ‘I know my cocktails’. And even though it is the second most drank cocktail in the world it still feels like it’s first EP level of inside fandom. The drink itself is a harmonious blend of gin, Campari, and vermouth. It is a secret handshake among connoisseurs, a symbol of sophistication, and a testament to Campari’s enduring legacy. Its vibrant red hue and storied history, stemming from Count Camillo Negroni’s bold request in a café, have cemented its place in the pantheon of classics.

Campari is more than a mere libation; it is a testament to Italian culture, an icon of design, and a guiding star in the realms of fashion and cinema. Whether sipped in a Negroni at a star-studded event or savoured casually with soda, Campari embodies the essence of la dolce vita, adding a touch of both sweetness and bitterness to life’s most stylish moments.

Please enjoy Campari responsibly.

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