Friday, August 31, 2012

Monthly Moonshine: Red Passion

As it turns out, I'm a bit old fashioned when it comes to my taste in alcohol. I should have realized this when I started drinking gin in university and several people asked if I was secretly an eighty-year-old man. This was usually followed by a remark about drinking pine trees (which, okay, fair, juniper has a distinctly pine-y scent to it). On the plus side, no one ever wanted to drink my alcohol at a party.

The next time I should have realized it was my discovery of the sidecar, the classic cocktail invented c. 1920. But no. I didn't even realize it when I fell hard for Pimm's on a hot summer day. It took a taste of Campari for me to really see it.

I was out with some members of my food writing class at Acadia restaurant in Toronto. We were there for the cocktails because the bar tender there is superb and very knowledgeable in what seem to be the forgotten arts of the cocktail (bitters, flavour complexity, syrups, etc.). I had a drink whose name I can't recall but whose flavour was strong with Camapri. I didn't know what the flavour was at first. Just that it had a sharp bitterness and a bit of spiciness smoothed out by subtle, underlying sweetness. 

I fell in love with Campari then and there. I also realized that Campari is a bit of an older drink: a lot of friends didn't even know what it was, and if they did it was only due to one the iconic vintage posters such as this one.

Campari has a distinct, vibrant red colour and is a staple in such classic cocktails as the Negroni and the Americano. It falls into the category of bitters, like angostura bitters, but unlike angostura bitters, which are used only in dashes, Campari is a potable bitter. Most people just call it an aperatif. 

Campari was invented in 1860 in Novara, Italy by Gaspare Campari and is made of an infusion of herbs, aromatic plants, fruit, alcohol and water. The recipe, like that of Pimm's and so many other herbal-based liqueurs, is top secret and apparently only known by very few people. 

I'll be honest, if you don't like bitter, you probably won't like Campari. I have an affinity for all things herbal and floral (lavender and rose are a couple of my favourite flavours), so I don't mind that it has a flavour some might liken to that of perfume. It's almost astringent in its bitterness, like biting into orange peel or the lingering tang of over-steeped black tea. It's just about my favourite thing right now.

This love of bitterness may also be why I prefer more classic cocktails. Older recipes tend to include a bitter element, whether in the form of cocktail bitters, like angostura; potable bitters, like Campari; or bitter alcohol, like gin. Today's cocktails slide much closer to the cloyingly sweet and syrupy, the headache-in-a-glass variety.

But that's okay. Now I not only have gin and Pimm's, but Campari. Cheers.


  1. Great post! I can't really get in to gin. Doesn't suit my taste, though I kinda wish I did like it.

    1. I've heard people say it's an acquired taste, though it didn't take me long to 'acquire' it, so... It definitely has a very particular flavour that I can understand people disliking.

  2. Our bartender at Acadia has moved on, I hear, to the bar at Momofuku, if you want to give his takes on bitterness another go.