Once limited to a few regions in Northern Italy, aperitivo culture—and the crimson-hued drinks that have come to define it—has taken hold of the bar world in recent years, spurring not only a number of new Italian-made red bitters, but American ones, too. With the proliferation of the easily adaptable spritz (not to mention the ever-permutable Negroni), rosy bottles of Campari and Aperol are just as likely to be spotted on a bar cart in New Jersey as they are at happy hour in Padua.
While there’s little argument that red bitters stand at the heart of an aperitivo spread, it’s also true that a “red bitter drink” can mean many different things, be it strong and stirred or bracing and effervescent. Of the latter category, of course, drinks like the Negroni Sbagliato, the Americano, the Aperol Spritz and the Bicicletta are among the most iconic. But they also represent easy templates upon which to build, simply by swapping in less conventional bitter liqueurs. Clover Club‘s Sbagliato Rosa, for example, offers a playful spin on the “mistaken Negroni,” in which the traditional combination of Campari and sweet vermouth is replaced with something softer, but equally bittersweet: an aromatic blend of Cappelletti and Cocchi Rosa. (Fittingly, given its name, the pink Sbagliato gets a topper of rosé Champagne.)
In the realm of strong and stirred, meanwhile, it’s almost impossible to talk of red bitters without giving the Negroni (once dubbed the “kale of cocktails“) its proper due. The typically equal parts combination of gin, Campari and sweet vermouth has spurred dozens of variations, owing to its dead-simple, bitter-forward formula. Among those that hew closest to tradition is Naren Young’s spicy and austere Cardinale, a gin-forward cocktail that calls on a mix of Contratto and dry vermouth for a complex play on the original. Douglas Derrick’s Negroni Alla Fiama, meanwhile, functions as something of a Negroni-Bellini mash-up: With additions of Cappelletti and fresh peach juice, this “breakfast-ready” cocktail brings together two iconic, albeit unlikely, heavy-hitters.
Finally, there are those red bitter drinks that are throughly unique, bearing little resemblance to their Italian progenitors. One such drink, Joaquín Simó‘s tart and smoky Naked & Famous, calls on equal parts mezcal, yellow Chartreuse, Aperol and lime juice. A close relative of the pre-Prohibition-era Last Word and the modern classic Paper Plane, it’s a drink that shows just how versatile these colorful liqueurs can be, while answering the call for the ever-widening category of innovative red bitter-driven drinks.
Better Off Red