Bold and bittersweet, Campari doesn’t sound like the most obvious canvas for infusions, especially compared with the more neutral flavors of, say, vodka or even simple syrup. But at bars across the country, the Italian liqueur seems to take on a new look by the day thanks to infusions of pandan, tomato jam and cacao nibs, to name just a few. Understanding the notes inherent to Campari—bitter citrus, warm spice—allows you to pinpoint the ingredients that harmonize well with it, and create an aperitif with extra layers of flavor. Armed with an infused Campari, you can add a boost of flavor to any cocktail that calls for the red bitter, or simply enjoy the complex infusion on its own or topped with soda.
To get started, here are some of our favorite infusions to try at home.
Coffee beans are an incredibly versatile cocktail ingredient, whether used whole—in stirred cocktails, imparting their oils to Manhattans or Old-Fashioneds—or tossed into the blender, adding complexity in classic frozen drinks. In Campari, coffee beans lend their roasted, chocolatey flavor and their oiliness, which buffs out the rough edges, making it synchronize with richer ingredients like sweet vermouth. To make it, steep a quarter-cup of coffee beans in a liter of Campari, as Erik Eastman, bartender and director of sales for Minnesota Ice, does for his Coley Negroni.
For a fruit-forward take on the aperitivo classic, Julie Reiner makes an easy strawberry-infused Campari for her Kula Negroni. Simply add a quart of sliced strawberries to a 750-milliliter bottle of the liqueur and let soak for four days, drawing out the berries’ juicy, lightly tart flavor. When mixing with this Campari, consider the perceived sweetness from the strawberries and adjust your drink’s other elements accordingly; in the Kula Negroni, for example, semisweet, floral and herbal bianco vermouth is used in place of traditional sweet vermouth.
For the growing group of “aperitiki” cocktails that pull equal inspiration from Italian and tropical drinking cultures, coconut Campari just makes sense. Not only does coconut oil impart its nutty, tropical flavor to the red bitter, but it also lends a rounder, fuller mouthfeel. Compared to infusions, fat-washing requires a few extra steps, but it can still be done fairly easily at home. First, combine the Campari with coconut oil, then freeze the mixture until the fat has formed a solid layer. Then, simply skim or strain out the solids. This is the method used to make the Jungle Bird variation at The Bamboo Club in Long Beach, California, but it can be used in any aperitivo-tropical mashups.
To imbue tropical flavor without fat-washing, try pineapple-infused Campari. The method, which Brooklyn bartender Matt Levy uses to make his fruity Bananavardier 3.0, is simple: Cut one pineapple into wedges, and combine with a liter of the liqueur. Let the mixture sit for one week, then strain. Unlike other Campari infusion methods, the solids here should be saved, as the resulting wedges make for eye-catching neon pink garnishes that double as a snack. “I tell people not to sleep on the garnish,” says Levy.