I’ve always felt taunted and challenged by “acquired tastes”— the level of maturity required to appreciate the item, the implied elitism of the expression—I would learn to love artichokes, fish sauce and Catherine MacKinnon, just for spite. Campari remains a target to overcome. My aversion to Campari is a point of cultural shame, particularly in light of my enthusiasm for appertivo, or happy hour. I resolved: in October, as I approach 25th birthday, I would make a concerted effort to appreciate the liquor, and then bask in my enlightened standing.
It’s bitter, barky flavor has put my off for years, but I keep coming back for the alluring, vibrant red. Campari’s signature flame, I am told, comes from the natural pigment carmines, which are the dried remains of the cactus-dwelling insect, cochineals. The recipe for Campari is CocaCola-level secret (only one man in at Campari’s factory in Novi Ligure knows the details), but officials do confirm that wormwood and 59 other aromatics and herbs comprise the aperitif.
Campari is almost a fable, a continental version of Camelot—culturally it symbolizes the achievement of success, of a self-made man, but also tradition, of easing into mealtime after the workday. Gaspare Campari was born in Castelnuovo, Italy in 1828, and became “apprentice maitre licoriste” (barman extraordinaire) in Turin at the green age of 14. After futzing with the recipe for his bitter concoction over 20-some years, he officially founded the Gruppo Campari in Milan in 1860. Campari would only sell his product to outlets that displayed “Campari Bitters” posters, quickly establishing a brand identity outside Milan. The business plan was both sturdy and stellar: today, Campari grosses 33 million bottles in annual sales, about the same world-wide as Jack Daniels.
The iconography of Campari is as unique and recognizable as its color. Davide Campari, Gaspare’s son, commissioned ideas for the Campari posters from European artists with the following instructions: “Artists must clearly display the brand name; use uncomplicated color; and the brand should be incorporated naturally in the picture.” French poster art luminary Leonetto Cappiello responded with one of the most noteworthy works of the period: a clown dancing in an orange peel holding a bottle of Campari. Also patrons of progressive design, the Camparis contacted Futurist art superhero Fortunato Depero to create the bottle for CampariSoda, the premixed cocktail. The beaker-like final product combines forceful and urbane features, and appears just as modern as when Campari released it in 1932.
As glamorous and distinctive as its image came to be, the house of Campari contracted trenchfoot in the culture wars of the 1980s. In 1983, the Reverend Jerry Falwell brought a case against Hustler magazine for producing an ad which featured Falwell and his mother in a “drunken incestuous encounter in an outhouse.” The ad parodied a contemporary Campari advertising campaign in which celebrities described “their first time” drinking Campari, with obvious sexual innuendo. The Court ruled 8-0 in favor of Hustler, finding that public figures “must tolerate occasional false statements, lest there be an intolerable chilling effect on speech that does have constitutional value.”
Over the next week, I will sample Campari in various incarnations, I will sweet-talk and swindle my taste buds into submission, I will take down this feeble-minded aversion of mine!
I shall try each of the following drinks, report back on their flavors and my level of satisfaction with the cocktail, hopefully garnering some level of affection for the drink as the week goes on:
• Campari neat
• Campari and soda
• Campari and orange juice