Think of it as the Shirley Temple effect: that pool of bright red syrup at the bottom of a glass triggers an instinctive response that the drink will be too sweet. It’s not a bad instinct given that grenadine, the syrup in question—even when made from real pomegranate—can often tilt the axis of a drink too far towards saccharine.
As a workaround, Washington, D.C., bartender Gina Chersevani subs in bright-hued Campari, either mixing it half-and-half with grenadine, or replacing it altogether. “It still has some sweetness to it, but it’s bittersweet, like a Sour Patch Kid,” says Chersevani, who notes that Campari typically has a comparable sugar content to grenadine, despite its deceptively bitter edge. It’s a trick she uses in her takes on the Pink Lady and Jack Rose, and even certain tiki drinks like the Zombie. “It doesn’t dry it out—it just changes it a little and makes it refreshing.”
Similarly, at Top of the Monk in Asheville, North Carolina, bartender Kala Brooks subs Campari into simple three-ingredient blueprints like the Tequila Sunrise or the Blinker. “The plug-and-play combinations of mixer and spirit are endless,” she says, though she notes that the switch tends to work best in drinks with plenty of citrus.
While Campari’s sweetness, viscosity and, of course, its vibrant red hue make it an easy trade for grenadine, that doesn’t mean it plays well with every ingredient. Chersevani cautions that Campari’s flavors tend to overwhelm or compete in certain instances. For example, in her Zombie riff, Angostura bitters get tossed overboard to keep the drink in balance. Brooks, too, advises against trying it with “drinks that are too layered, soft or sweet as the flavor gets muddied quickly.”
Yet when it works, that bittersweet note can coax a drink toward a different profile altogether. “One of the more satisfying exchanges that really works is the famous Billionaire Cocktail from Employees Only,” says Brooks of the Whiskey Sour–esque recipe. Tweaking the drink with the red bitter allows it to morph into an even more interesting, complex drink: “It doesn’t even taste like Campari anymore—it’s so weird,” she says.
Ironically, the Employees Only team were among the first to market a high-grade commercial grenadine with the mission of elevating drinks beyond the sugary shadow of the Shirley Temple. Removing even that half-ounce vestige, however, can take the drink to entirely new heights.