Campari is a red apéritif that is mildly bitter, with a hint of sweetness.
It is made from herbs, peel from bitter oranges, roots, spices, sugar — 86 ingredients in all, steeped in alcohol, then distilled into a concentrate, then mixed with pure alcohol. The red colouring comes from Cochineal Extract.
The formula is kept a secret. Nine people know parts of the formula (as of 2003); a tenth person, the President, is the only one who knows the entire formula.
The alcohol content is 25%.
Campari is classically served with soda water and a twist of lemon or orange. It can also be used in cocktails: two classic ones are the Americano and the Negroni. It is also good with orange or grapefruit juice.
In Italy, Campari is also sold in single-serving 110 ml bottles as “Campari Soda”, which is already mixed: 40% Campari, 60% carbonated water, making an overall alcohol strength of 10%. The bottle it is still sold in was designed in the early 1930s.
The company also makes Aperol.
Gaspare Campari was born 1828 in Cassolnovo, a small town in the province of Pavia, in Lombardy. (Other sources erroneously report “Castelnuovo.”) His parents were farmers with ten children. Today, there is a piazza in Cassolnovo named after the family — “Piazza Campari.”
At the age of 15, Gaspare went to Turin where he worked in a caffè called “Pasticceria Bass” and a restaurant named “Ristorante Cambio.” He worked just as a dishwasher, but wanted to learn about how to make liqueurs. He started a family of his own in Novara, just west of Milan in Lombardy, Italy. He had five sons and one daughter. The names of two of the sons were Davide and Guido. His wife and his daughter died. Gaspare remarried and moved to Milan, where his second wife was from.
In 1860, Gaspare bought a caffè called “Amicizia” in Milan, facing the Duomo. He chose well. Within a few years, the city wanted the land for the cathedral piazza, which they were redoing and enlarging. In exchange for agreeing to sell his caffè to the development, he got the rights to have a space in the Galleria Vittorio Emanuel, the indoor shopping mall, that was soon to open.
In 1867, the Galleria opened, with the new Caffè Campari in it. His sons, Davide and Guido, worked there with him. It was frequented by artists and writers.
Gaspare invented the recipe for Campari after a lot of trial and error, as a house specialty for his caffè. He called it the “Dutch bitter” — “Bitter all’ uso d’Hollanda”: he actually modelled it after something he knew was being made in Holland.
1882 – Gaspare died. The business was inherited by his son, Davide. Davide and Guido resolved to continue building the business. Davide let other bar owners sell their bitters, if they put a “Campari Bitters” sign up. He decided to abandon some small-selling elixirs and liqueurs that they had been making, and focus on Campari.
1892 – Davide opened his first factory, in Milan.
1904 – Larger factory opened in Sesto San Giovanni, now a suburb of Milan in the north-east of the city.
1904 – Exports started, primarily to Italian emigrants in Argentina and Somalia.
1920 – The space in the Galleria was acquired by Ettore Zucca (makers of Rabarbaro Zucca Bitters.)
1932 – Campari Soda was launched in a flask-shaped bottle designed by an artist named Fortunato Depero.
1932 – Campari France was established in Nanterre (in the Île-de-France, near Paris.) The next factory to be opened was in Viganello, near Lugano in Switzerland.
1936 – Davide dies.
1952 – New production facilities in Rome.
1987 – New production facilities in Sao Paolo, Brazil
Campari was a drink for the smart set, until in the 1980s all the flash and nouveau riche people starting drinking it, at which point the smart set abandoned it somewhat.
In May 2005, an apartment building named the “Davide Campari” in Cassolnovo was issued a speeding ticket for going 152 km/h in a 90km/h zone. Error-checking on the part of the police revealed that it wasn’t actually the apartment building that was speeding (which would have been noticed by its startled inhabitants, no doubt), but a car belonging to the Campari company.
Berne, Amanda. Campari still magnificently bitter. San Francisco: The San Francisco Chronicle. 11 May 2003.