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Cocktail Hour: Bitter Campari Soothes Winter Woes

Winter Sour cocktail

Forget the sweetness of rum and the vanilla-honey nuances of bourbon. Sometimes we just want to soak our winter woes in a bitter spirit: Campari.

Created in Italy 153 years ago by Gaspare Campari and brought to America at the beginning of the 20th century, the bright-red liqueur is now sold in almost 200 countries. Italy and the U.S. are still the major consumers, with Germany and Brazil not far behind.

Some say Campari contains 20 different ingredients. Others say 80, but only those intimately involved in the production process really know. Although the recipe remains a closely guarded secret, we know that it combines herbs, aromatic plants and fruit in alcohol and water. Campari is enjoyed as an apéritif, stirred with soda and a slice of orange, and is the basis of two influential cocktails, the Americano and the Negroni.

The traditional Americano is sweet vermouth, Campari and water, with a flamed orange peel for garnish, once sold as a bottled cocktail by Martini & Rossi; the Negroni is typically Campari, sweet vermouth and gin (though vodka can be substituted), again with a flamed orange peel for garnish. Both drinks are served cold.

The colorful, fashionable and avant-garde artwork that historically has been used to promote the spirit around the world has become famous in its own right. The first Campari ad ran in January 1889 in Milan’s biggest newspaper, followed the following year by the first Campari advertising posters. In 1900, the company created its first calendar, with contributions from Italian painters, illustrators and poster artists.

Bitter Campari poster

An advertisement for Campari. Courtesy of Campari America

Many of those calendar prints became famous posters, including the 1920-era “Red Passion” poster of two people kissing in a red room and the “Bitter Campari” ad of the company-created character Spiritello emerging from an orange peel.

Halted during World War II, Campari’s visually arresting advertising resumed in 1940 and as consumption grew and spread internationally, the spirits maker became involved in sponsoring international sporting events.

By the 1970s, the likes of David Niven and Humphrey Bogart were doing Campari ads, and even the great Italian director Federico Fellini directed a short film commercial for the spirit. This collaboration with famous actors and directors continues. Salma Hayek has shot Campari commercials and starred in the calendar photographed by Mario Testino. The 2013 calendar features Penelope Cruz.

Art and beauty aside, bartenders love playing with Campari and creating variations on the Negroni as well as designing their own modern-day drinks. H. Joseph Erhmann in San Francisco, the owner of Elixir in the Mission District (one of Food and Wine magazine’s top 100 bars in America) and a founding member of San Francisco Cocktail Week provides this week’s Campari-inspired drink.

Winter Sour

Serves 1

Created by H. Joseph Ehrmann in San Francisco


2 inches fresh rosemary

1½ ounce Meyer lemon juice

1 ounce egg white

1 ounce Campari

1½ ounce clover honey syrup (made by blending honey with water in a 1:1 ratio, and heating to dissolve)


1. In a mixing glass, strip the leaves from the rosemary sprig and muddle lightly.

2. Add the Meyer lemon juice and egg white and dry shake for 5 seconds.

3. Add the Campari and honey syrup and fill with ice.

4. Shake well for 10 seconds and strain up.

Top photo: Winter sour cocktail. Credit: Courtesy of Campari America

Zester Daily contributor Virginie Boone is a Sonoma Valley-based wine writer. She has reported on the Northern California wine scene for the Santa Rosa Press Democrat and its affiliate food and wine magazine, Savor, and is a contributing reviewer of California wines for Wine Enthusiast.

  • jacqueline friedrich 1·30·13

    No offense intended but Campari is one of my Go-To beverages. (I always have a jar of it in the freezer.) The above recipe makes me want to barf. Here are some of the ways I drink Campari — other than the usual. On ice, with a chunk of one of the major members of the citrus fruit family. With Schweppes tonic and chunk of above cited citrus. Normal Negroni or Americano recipe but easy, very easy on the Vermouth, and, freshly-squeezed orange juice. Not revolutionary, for sure, but easy, delicious, thirst quenching and settles the stomach.

  • Virginie Boone 1·31·13

    Oh, Jacqueline, please don’t barf! Just stick to your lovely go-to recipes and enjoy. 🙂