The Negroni has long been established as an easy yet sophisticated cocktail to make at home or order in almost any bar, for an immediate taste of Italy. The three-ingredient, equal-parts template and strong red bitter profile have inspired dozens of modern-classic variations; it has also served as a Trojan horse in helping Americans appreciate both bitter flavors in their drinks and Italy’s aperitivo tradition.
But the Negroni can be a spirituous affair, while the hallmarks of all-occasion aperitivo drinks lean more toward bubbly and low-ABV. This style is exemplified by the much-beloved spritz, cast as the iconic aperitivo worldwide, and the deceptively simple and vibrant Campari & Soda: a mainstay in its native Italy and, now, among bartenders and chefs stateside. The same individuals we have to thank for helping to raise the profile of amaro in the United States—taking it from a dusty digestivo more associated with Italian nonni to a key component in cocktails across the country—are embracing the more bitter aperitivo cocktail as their go-to sundowner.
“The Campari & Soda is just so gorgeously red and vivacious, with the bubbles and the effervescence,” says Julia Momosé, the creative director and partner of a high-end Japanese-inspired Chicago cocktail bar. “It’s incredibly inviting, and it just feels like a treat… No matter what part of the day it falls [in], it hits the spot.”
In 1867, Gaspare Campari, creator of the eponymous crimson red bitter, first opened Caffè Campari in the heart of Milan. In 1915, his son, Davide, launched a sister bar, Camparino in Galleria, where the Campari & Soda as we know it was truly born (known there as “Campari Seltz,” it remains their top-selling drink). A key component of the cocktail was a proprietary carbonation system that allowed bartenders to use a siphon gun, connected via hose to the water storage system, to quickly add a forceful blast of ice-cold seltzer to the glass of Campari, instantly combining the two ingredients. The result is a perfectly chilled, bubbly and bitter drink with a cloudlike head of aromatic foam.
While the simple build of the Campari & Soda is as unassuming as it sounds, the first sip—dry and herbaceous, with a pronounced bitter bite—can take one by surprise. But in time, the liqueur’s nuanced flavor profile becomes easier to embrace. “Anything that’s introduced to an individual for the first time needs to be prefaced with a story,” says Lauren Paylor, a Washington, D.C., bartender, consultant and entrepreneur. “If we just lead with bitter and that’s it, we’re not really painting the whole picture, right? Maybe there’s a little bit of dried orange or freshness from an orange peel. It’s a lot more complex than just bitter.”
“This is a flavor profile that people have grown into appreciating and are enjoying more and more,” says Momosé. “The Campari & Soda fits the bill so perfectly in so many ways.”
The liqueur’s appealing complexity, combined with bracing bubbles, low ABV and a beyond-easy build has made the drink a favorite call among hospitality workers looking for a dynamic drink option after a long shift. Michael Capoferri, the owner and operator of a neighborhood bar in Echo Park, Los Angeles, points out that including a pour of Campari in a drink doesn’t add just one ingredient, but rather a “beautifully complex” combination of flavors. “The Campari & Soda is the aperitivo drink choice for me because I prefer something a little drier, a little more bitter, a little less sweet,” he says. “But it’s a little bit of a different drinking experience.”
Part of the appeal of the Campari & Soda is its simple yet stylish nature, one that comfortably travels the high-low spectrum with a sense of bittersweet grace. Another is that, whether you’re stirring one up at home, starting the evening at your favorite restaurant or looking for a last call option at a dive bar, you can count on a bottle of Campari and cold soda water being at the ready.
As with any highball, the fewer ingredients in a drink, the more to consider—from glassware and garnish to ice and temperature to the type of sparkling water—which offers some room for experimenting in making the Campari & Soda your own. But in the end, odds are, you’re going to have a serviceable, and likely very delicious, drink in front of you.
“Even the worst imaginable iteration of a Campari & Soda still tastes pretty darn good. It is unruinable,” says Brooklyn-based bartender Jack Schramm, who likes a squeeze of lime in his for an added hit of acid. “Over the past six months, the drink I’ve consumed the most is the Campari & Soda… It hits every single mark that I need in a beverage. It’s a perfect drink.”