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Cocktails

Make the Campari & Soda Your Own

August 04, 2021

Story: Punch Staff

photo: Lizzie Munro

Cocktails

Make the Campari & Soda Your Own

August 04, 2021

Story: Punch Staff

photo: Lizzie Munro

From freezing the bottle to selecting the perfect bubbly water, it’s the subtle details that make the drink infinitely permutable and perpetually enjoyable.

The category of elevated highballs is an iconic example of how mindful consideration—a thoughtful combination of spirit, modifier, glassware, temperature and presentation—can transform two ingredients into something greater than the sum of its parts. Take the Japanese whisky highball, that democratic drink that always delivers, whether it’s served in a vintage crystal glass on a silver tray in a hushed ginza bar, poured on draft into a chilled mug in a busy izakaya or drunk straight from a can out of a Tokyo train station vending machine.

The bittersweet Campari & Soda is, similarly, a simple drink with a spirited history and potential for the sublime. With its straightforward build of one part Campari and three parts carbonated water, it’s emblematic of sprezzatura, effortlessly demonstrating how a pair of ingredients can come together in infinite ways. It’s a drink inherently at home as a low-ABV aperitivo, but whose ability to gracefully travel across the high-low spectrum finds it appropriate at venues from upscale cocktail bars to restaurants beyond Italian cuisine to neighborhood dive bars.

As a result, making the Italian classic at home can be as simple as pouring two ingredients into a glass filled with ice, or as complex as a considered ritual. “You can treat it with the same respect you would a Japanese highball,” says Jordan Michelman, an award-winning journalist based in Portland, Oregon (who believes that almost any spirit can be “highball-ed”). “It’s a pure and really beautiful way to taste a spirit… Taking an approach like this to a Campari & Soda helps ritualize the process for me.”

As it is one of only two ingredients, it’s essential to consider what kind of water should be included. “This is where really thinking about the type of water that you’re going to use with it can elevate the drink,” says Michelman. Club soda and seltzer, both variations of filtered water that are force-carbonated, are the traditional options for their neutral flavor and high level of carbonation. Club soda is also infused with varying levels of added minerals (such as sodium chloride and potassium sulfate) that lend a slight hint of salinity. “That subtle salinity adds a lot of brightness to a drink,” says Lauren Paylor, a Washington, D.C., bartender, consultant and entrepreneur.

Similarly, sparkling mineral waters each have a unique chemical composition determined by the geology of their origins, with naturally occurring minerals (such as sodium, calcium and magnesium) that give each brand a distinctive terroir. For best results, sample the mineral waters on their own, then paired with Campari, to see how variation changes the profile. “Sparkling mineral water is a more distinctive product that will influence the overall flavor of your drink… There are some mineral waters that are a little bit more neutral or really clean, or really pure-tasting with very low total dissolved solids, really low mineral content,” says Michelman. “So many different choices to consider for a drink you’re going to build.”

Another key component: the ice. As Paylor says, “If I’m in a position where I’m considering how that water is affecting the crispness and the quality of my beverage, I also want to consider: Is it better to serve my Campari & Soda over a cube of ice with a very mineral-driven sparkling water, so that it’s not being diluted as quickly? … And if I’m using chip ice, is it good-quality ice?” Ultimately, the Campari & Soda’s profile is forgiving when it comes to ice choice—it just demands that the resulting drink be super-cold.

For Julia Momosé, the creative director and partner of a high-end Japanese-inspired cocktail bar in Chicago, the Campari & Soda starts with the glassware. “I consider the glass an ingredient. It’s such an integral part of the experience,” she says. She prefers to use a heavier, weighted glass with a thinner edge: “The thinner the glass, the more you’re going to sense the cold when you first bring it to your lips,” she says. “And that is an explicit experience. You can almost feel the bubbles through the glass. I love that.”

She keeps a bottle of Campari and a glass in the freezer; to prepare her drink, she fills the glass a third of the way with ice, free-pours one and a half to two ounces of Campari, then tops with cold club soda until it bubbles over the top. “I’m more in the no-garnish camp, but now and then will do a little squeeze of lemon or express a lemon twist,” she says. Her final touch is a pinch of salt to bring out Campari’s fruity notes.

Campari & Soda
Recipe

Campari & Soda

A nod to the iconic serve at the drink’s birthplace, the historic Camparino in Galleria.

You’ll also find Campari in the freezer at Michael Capoferri’s house, where he makes his own carbonated water (which, to his chagrin, falls short of the “angry bubbles” produced from the custom carbonation system at his Echo Park, Los Angeles, bar). “If you’re making a Campari & Soda at home, it’s really all about temperature. And you want to start with a water that’s, like, really ripping carbonated,” he says. “Whether we’re talking mineral water or seltzer, you have to consider you’re going to lose a bunch of your carbonation from the foam pouring it into the glass.” Capoferri is partial to his Campari & Soda over ice, but offers that if the Campari, glass and water are all extremely well chilled, you don’t necessarily need it. Eschewing garnish, he instead mists the top of the drink with a spray of essential orange oil dispersed in alcohol. “I’m a zealot for carbonation, and if you stick an orange or anything in there, it’s a nucleation site for bubbles, and you’re going to foam off a bunch of your carbonation,” he says.

Bartender Jack Schramm has experienced that full spectrum of high and low, from the splashed-together versions at corner dive bars to a science-minded take of properly diluted, near-frozen batching with clarified lime juice and carbonated Campari. While there isn’t room in the freezer of his Brooklyn apartment to keep a bottle of Campari in cold storage, that doesn’t stop him from making a memorable house version. He starts with a glass filled most of the way with ice cubes, eyeballs a two-ounce pour of Campari, then cracks open a fresh, cold can of seltzer (“The sound of a can opening signifies carbonation for me. It’s definitely psychosomatic,” says Schramm) and pours it in before giving it a quick stir with his finger. (“Hey, I’m at home,” he notes.) He palm-squeezes half of a cut lime, dropping the spent shell into the drink, before finishing with a few drops of saline solution. “And that, to me, is a world-class cocktail,” says Schramm, riffing on the high-low beauty of the Campari & Soda. “I love that it can occupy both of those spaces.”

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