Bitter is decidedly not vanilla. And while my cocktail may not be your cocktail, I think we all have it in us to be just a little bit seduced by the mixing rule of Bitter, Sweet and Spirited. Here, in the US, bitter has often been given a bad reputation - that flavor that you really shouldn’t be tasting. But if it is wrong - why does so much of the world enjoy bitter flavors so freely, openly and passionately? It is time that attitudes change --- and luckily they have been, it is Negroni Week after all.
The Negroni is often the gateway cocktail to a bitter life - a subtle but persistent yearning that all cocktails just had a tad more of a bitter backbone to them. And why is this? To the uninitiated, this craving can seem odd - so let’s first dispel the notion that bitter is undesirable. Dark chocolate, grapefruit, coffee, beer - take away their bitter flavors and you are left with something hollow and thin, lacking the core and soul of those flavors. And while there is some consensus that our bitter taste buds evolved to warn us about potentially dangerous plants, it very well might be that very feature that makes bitter flavors more exciting - just a little danger in your glass, makes a cocktail just a bit more alluring and complex. [If you’d like to read more about all things bitter and cocktail friendly, see our article on the roots and herbs of cocktailing]
Campari has been answering the call of the bitter since the 1860s, when Gaspar Campari concocted the recipe in Milan while experimenting with various bottled cocktails made from herbal combinations. The recipe he came up with has persisted to this day (except for a move away from using carmine - the crimson cochineal insect derived dye), and has remained mostly secret. We do know that it includes over 60 ingredients, among them: quinine, rhubarb, ginseng, orange peels, aromatic herbs, and gentian. A much more bitter and brown version is the first product that undergoes further distillation and dilution, and eventual infusion with dye to it’s trademark color. It is then bottled, sold and enjoyed for all it’s bitter, sweet, herbal and citrus flavors.
But what Campari managed to bottle up besides the flavor, is pure romance. Sure, that sounds hyperbolic, but just take a second to consider what other icons feel as purely romantically Italian as Campari does. Vespas, tiny Fiats, narrow cobblestone streets and sun drenched cafes - this is where Campari lives in the modern imagination. Campari just might be the Cary Grant movie of cocktail culture. Just gaze below at the vast array of art produced by cutting edge artists for the Campari image - few, if any, alcohol producers have inspired this kind of artistic and romantic passion. Sure, such are the things of a successful, century long marketing campaign - but that doesn’t make the sentiments any less potent. Campari very well may be one of Italy’s greatest ambassadors.
[ok, full confession, we couldn't help ourselves and made the one on the very right. Line art: Preston Lai, Color+Photoshop: Mish Sukharev]
Today, Campari is hardly alone on the bitter aperitif (or liqueur) shelf. Quite a few producers have perfected their own version of the bitter-sweet, and some have succeeded spectacularly. Below we cover Campari and five other of our favorites, what they taste like, and - this being Negroni Week, we suggest our favorite gins to pair them with.
There isn’t much to say that we haven’t already - it’s bitter, it’s mildly floral, it has notes of grapefruit, bitter orange, clove and herbs. It ends with a sweetness and lingering warm bitter taste. In certain parts of the world, aside from being sold in its standard form, it comes premixed with soda - appropriately branded as Campari and Soda. Before the Negroni, The Americano (very much of Italian origin, despite the name, and consisting of equal parts Campari and sweet vermouth, then topped with soda water) was the prevalent Campari cocktail. Fairly credible legend has it that the adventuring Count Negroni wanted his Americano more boozy; soda water was axed, gin was added in equal parts to the other two ingredients, and The Negroni was born.
Here we pair Campari with the equally classic Beefeater gin. The oldest London Dry around is exactly the perfect pairing to make the most traditional, time-tested Negroni.
Campari’s lighter, sweeter cousin. If Campari can be the gateway to bitter, Aperol can often be the gateway to Campari. Aperol is about 60 years younger and markedly lighter. This has made it a favorite for a more spritz like cocktail, but it makes a fantastic Negroni variation for those who find Campari’s bight a bit too much, or simply feel like something milder. This lightness, sweetness and lower ABV makes Aperol a less traditional bitter aperitif, and so here we pair it with the most well known non-traditional gin: Hendrick’s.
Hendrick’s is known for its softer, floral, and cucumber laden flavor. Often known as the gateway gin, it seems tailor made for the lighter Aperol. Combine these two together and you have the makings of the most refreshing, summer-y Negroni.
See more about:
- Hendrick's Gin
A much more modern bitter aperitif and one made in California by St. George spirits, this is a much louder and richer character. It also has decidedly California roots - made from Central Valley grown oranges, and bark of the California native buckthorn tree. Bruto Americano is a more distant cousin of Campari (despite having the same ABV and sugar amount) then Aperol is. The flavors are warmer and spicier. There is a distinct herby woodiness married to familiar kitchen spices like ginger and cinnamon - but none of them stand out from the rest. This makes Bruto Americano a truly well rounded experience. In contrast to Aperol, Bruto Americano has flavor that can easily dominate in cocktails, so we often suggest to use a tad less.
We thought it was only fair to pair the Bruto with St. George’s other sonorous product: Terroir Gin. Made with botanicals from Mount Tamalpais, this gin is nothing short of taking a sip of the Northern California coast line. This makes this gin unique and aggressive in cocktails - a perfect pairing for broad-shouldered Bruto. In a Negroni we often suggest to use a bit more of the gin then the Bruto Americano to get the full California-in-a-glass experience.
See more about:
- Bruto Americano
- Terroir Gin
Though a new comer to the bitter aperitif line up, this recipe is based on one from 1872, and from the Italian team known for their vermouths. Hewing as close as possible to traditional methods, this bitter liqueur is rested in Tino casks that were utilized previously in vermouth production. The result is a full bodied, orange-forward, warmly sweet and pleasantly bitter liqueur that can stand up to any gin. Bitterness-wise it sits somewhere between Aperol and Campari, with some warm notes reminiscent of the Bruto Americano. This bottle is very much tailor made for a Negroni.
Something rich and complex deserves to be paired with its equal. For this we chose the limited edition of San Diego’s You and Yours distillery Winter Sunday Gin. While the regular Winter Gin, with its blood orange and pepper notes works quite well in a bitter cocktail, the Provisional Sunday Gin (made of a blend of regular Winter Sunday Gin and Single Malt barrel aged Winter Sunday Gin), really makes the pairing feel complete. The richer notes bestowed by the aging meet the Martini Riserva bitter seamlessly.
See more about:
- Martini & Rossi Riserva Speciale
- Provisional Sunday Gin
Invented around the same time as Campari, Gran Classico is the Italian Campari sibling that moved away to Switzerland. The recipe that used to be made in Turin (and the product was called Torino Gran Classico) was purchased by a Swiss producer in 1925 and has stayed there ever since. One major difference setting Gran Classico apart from its former siblings is that it is not red. The amber color of Gran Classico is common to all bitter aperitifs, but then most of them are traditionally dyed red before bottling. Maybe it’s the Italian penchant for style versus Swiss practicality, or something else, but it does make for an interesting departure. Gran Classico disappeared from the American market for quite a while, supposedly due to its use of wormwood, but with the ban lifted, people have been rediscovering this fantastic old bitter.
Comprised of 25 herbs and botanicals, Gran Classico has lots in common with Campari flavor-wise. Some in fact argue that it may bear close resemblance to Campari’s original taste. So what are the differences? Gran Classico pushes forward with bold orange and rhubarb - these notes are much more distinct here then they are in Campari. There is a bit more complexity with the woody and spice notes, and the bitterness is a bit more subdued. The feel is a bit thicker, and the finish leaves a bit more sweetness on the tongue.
We loved pairing Gran Classico with a barrel aged gin. Here we chose Venus Blend No.2 from Santa Cruz. This gin is smooth with notes of orange, cardamom, and oak - and Gran Classico’s strengths shines through. A Negroni like this finds itself halfway to a barrel aged Negroni - with zero waiting time!
See more about:
- Gran Classico
- Venus Blend No.2 Gin
Lastly we introduce a bitter aperitif that’s a bit different from the first five. It’s not exactly a Campari relative, as it is the French answer to Campari. There is much overlap in terms of the roles that each of these bottles played in the burgeoning modern cultures of each of these countries.
Suze stands out from most of the other gentian containing liqueurs and aperitifs by featuring gentian as the central flavor, versus the background bittering agent it normally plays. Fernand Moureaux made Suze to be different from the very beginning - he refused to base it in wine, and in doing this contrasted with the common French aperitifs of the day. In 1889, Suze debuted in France, and within 10 years was sweeping awards and cemented itself as an emblematic staple of Parisian cafe culture central to the creative outpouring of the Belle Epoque. Picasso literally made a painting of it. It only took about 100 years for Suze to be imported into the United States - but we’re glad it’s finally here.
So what does it taste like? Well, Suze is a great way to learn what gentian truly tastes like as it possesses a distinct aroma of wild gentian harvested from the Alps. It is complex and aromatic with notes of bittersweet herbs and subtle accents of vanilla, candied orange and spice with a delicately bitter finish. If you’re wondering if Suze is for you, a good gauge might be how you feel about Campari and Cocchi Americano/Lillet Blanc - if a cross of those two sounds appealing, you may have found your bottle!
We decided to pair Suze with Uncle Val’s Botanical Gin. This gin is sweet-tasting and citrusy, with a light herbal aroma. With cucumber and lavender on the palata, combined with Suze it can be base for a truly botanical White Negroni. We definitely suggest using a ratio with more gin then Suze to really bring out the meadow-like flavors of this gin.See more about:
- Uncle Val's Botanical Gin