In 2012, a concerned article in South Africa's Times Live fretted that cocktail purists were turning their backs on Campari following its 2006 decision to discontinue the use of carmine—a potent dye derived from crushed cochineal beetles—in favor of using artificial coloring to obtain its signature ruby-red hue. "Purists now maintain that the new(ish) version is quite inferior, with no body and a different flavor," the Times sighed. "The change is six years old, but seems only recently to be causing a stir (sorry) in the top layer of the mixology world."
Well, they were clearly very wrong. In the wake of the second annual Negroni Week, we were left with the impression that Campari's bittersweet aftertaste continues to hold a very special place—a pedestal, even—in the hearts of bartenders, old Italian men, and young people who romanticize old Italian men. Despite its slightly gaudy maraschino color and potent flavor that, at first taste, rests somewhere between orange Fanta syrup and an AA battery, the stuff is an undeniably powerful player in the world of fine cocktails. Find a self-proclaimed mixologist who knows nothing of Campari, and you've found a phony.
As for the Times' forlorn claims of "no body and a different flavor," it seems that even among longtime fans, few seem to have truly taken notice about its lack of beetle juice. (For what it's worth, carmine—also known as cochineal extract and natural red 4—is also in such innocuous foods as Yoplait yogurt, Minute Maid Ruby Red Grapefruit Juice, and Good & Plentys. Starbucks also used it in its strawberries and cream Frappuccinos until mid-2012.)
It's a drink for fucked up people, but fucked up people with good taste, like James Bond and Anthony Bourdain.
Aside from (formerly) the unjust blood of innocent insects, Campari's formula has been a mystery since its invention in 1860. But this much we know: It's a concoction of alcohol, fruit, and herbs, including the Caribbean shrub cascarilla (also used in vermouth) and chinotto, which are small, bitter Italian oranges. Other loud components include grapefruit and lemon leaf. "In England, we have coins made out of copper," recalls Carlo Guy, a bartender at New York's gin-centric speakeasy Bathtub Gin. "When I was a kid, I used to put these copper coins in my mouth that had that bitter, drying, kind of metallic taste. Like licking an old pot."
Carlo, by the way, loves Campari, and this is his means of likening its essence. "Have you ever been a stupid kid and picked up an orange and just bit into it? It's that. [Campari] is full of zest and pith. Obviously it's got some herbs in it … maybe some hints of clove." Other flavors that he detects are sage, thyme, blood orange, and "satsumas, tangerines, all those types of things." His colleagues, Ariel Suarez and Alex Valencia, chime in, certain that they can taste rhubarb, pine, and coriander. Ariel has heard rumors that there are only four fruits and four herbs in the formula. But there could be a thousand, and we would still be guessing; Campari simply tastes like Campari.
But although many people choose to drink Campari on the rocks, its natural habitat is in a Negroni—the classic stirred cocktail of equal parts gin, Campari, and vermouth. Nearly a century old, the Negroni was a favorite of Orson Welles and was featured prominently in Tennessee Williams' The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone. Like most libations made with three different types of alcohol, it's not for the faint of spirit or for the casual drinker meeting his buddy at a sports bar. It's a drink for fucked up people, but fucked up people with good taste, like James Bond and Anthony Bourdain. (Although you will find many types of fucked up people at Dave + Buster's, you will never find a Negroni on the counter there.) And as a Negroni needs Campari, Campari needs the Negroni.
"Without dismembering Campari, I don't think they'd be where they are now if it wasn't for the Negroni," Carlo whispers. He explains the delicate symbiosis of the Negroni in a way that is both poetic and mathematical. "This is an important thing. If Campari was just like biting into an orange, it wouldn't sell, because biting into an orange is disgusting. But with Campari, and with the Negroni—this will sound quite sexual—it's like a story in your mouth," he tells me. "First, you get the sweet citrus, almost like a candied orange. Then the middle part of the story is more herbal, earthy. And then right at the end, a big explosion of just … bitterness. Bright and bitter."
It's difficult to think of bitterness as a desirable quality in food and drink. Few would think of it as a pleasant adjective; its double entendre suggests a lasting meanness or resentment. But it's this meanness that offsets sweeter spirits and makes it mixable with just about anything. We want to drink bitter drinks for the same reason that people want to watch teenagers in love die of cancer in The Fault in Our Stars. We like a little pain in our punch.
In fact, Carlo has an even more specific mental narrative to accompany it. "This is pretentious bullshit, but I do have a thing about Campari. For me, it's very, very romantic. It's historical and Italian and an aperitivo—and an incredible one at that. But what I would do is listen to this song called "Buona Sera" by Louis Prima. It's about a couple and they're walking through the mountains in Napoli, and it's absolutely beautiful. The gentleman is obviously in love with his girlfriend, so he stops by a jewelry shop, and they look into the window, and he's like, I haven't got enough money to buy a ring, but for now I'll just tell you I love you … At this point I go onto my balcony, and it's sunny, and I make myself a Negroni or a Campari on the rocks. I sit in a chair overlooking the city, and this song plays in my head. And I imagine myself dressed in a white tuxedo. I'd be smoking a cigarette, a Marlboro red, and would look up right as a beautiful girl is walking into this restaurant. That's what it conjures to me. So romantic, very Italian, a start and a finish."
"You'll find that assholes drink it neat," Carlo grins, presumably using the term with endearment.
Even alongside other high-proof classic cocktails such as Old Fashioneds and Manhattans, the Negroni seems to speak most loudly and clearly. Bartenders at Bathtub Gin claim to each make about 20 of them per night, 40 if they're among friends or visiting comrades from other cocktail bars. It's like an industry password for those who are most serious about drink-making. "You'll find that assholes drink it neat," Carlo grins, presumably using the term with endearment. "I've found that a lot of bartenders drink Campari neat just to show that they know what they're drinking. But people drink Campari in cocktails not for the beginning of the story, but for the end. It's for the bitter end. For the story."
As for the beetles that were lost along the way, Alex shrugs. "Think about it—with some liquors, people put a snake or a scorpion or a worm in the bottle and people fight over who can drink it. So what's the difference?"
This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES on June 13, 2014.