When it comes to the Campari story, the American Dream has nothing on the Italian Dream. Born to a large farming family in rural northwest Italy in 1828, Gaspare Campari began bartending at the tender age of 14.
From his early beginnings in the booze business, Campari kept at it for decades, eventually owning his own cafe. By 1860, his long years of experimenting with herbal liqueurs and bitter aperitifs resulted in the vibrant red, mouth-puckering spirit we now know by his name.
Unlike a lot of historic boozes, Campari has never fallen by the wayside in its native land. The Italians have been sipping on Campari mixed with club soda since at least 1932, when Gaspare's son Davide came up with the idea of packaging the carbonated aperitif in its now iconic squat glass bottle (designed by no less than futurist artist Fortunato Depero). Along with being the world's first pre-mixed cocktail, the Campari soda represents the only good thing to come out of fascist Italy.
Cocktail connoisseurs often say Campari is an acquired taste but, once acquired, its relatively low 24 percent alcohol content and citrus-friendly flavors make it a go-to for a number of fascinating concoctions—by far the most well known being the negroni (1 oz. gin, 1 oz. Campari, 1 oz. sweet vermouth stirred over ice and garnished with orange peel). A close second is the boulevardier, which is simply a negroni fixed with rye whiskey rather than gin.
While much is known of Campari's storied past, precious little can be said of its ingredients. The recipe has reportedly stood unchanged since its creation and been held in strict secrecy. At once spicy and bitter, all we know is that Campari contains dozens of herbs, aromatic plants and fruits. Up until 2006, it took its striking carmine color from the crushed shells of cochineal beetles, which the mammoth Gruppo Campari (which owns 50 brands including Skyy Vodka, Wild Turkey and Grand Marnier) replaced with a synthetic dye.
In the spirit of invention typified by Gaspare and Davide Campari, we took a chance with a seemingly bizarre combination of Campari and india pale ale—a mixture we learned about by way of online food magazine TheKitchn.com, which picked up on the so-called Campari and IPA Spritzer from The New York Times, which called it an "offhand work of genius."
Generally speaking, according to one taster, the Campari/IPA mix accentuates the herbal, floral notes of the hops and the sweetness of the malt in the beer complements the medicinal qualities in Campari. To call the interplay of sweet and bitter flavors complex would be a vast understatement, and there is a lot of room for error in this seemingly simple summertime sipper (which we suggest calling the Camparipa, just because it's fun to say).
After experimenting with several IPAs, we hit on what we feel comfortable recommending as the preferred pairing: Campari with the Blood Orange Rustler IPA from Payette Brewing.
The Blood Orange Rustler ($1.59 for a 12 oz. can at Trader Joe's) weighs in at 6.2 percent ABV and 65 IBUs, making it a hefty brew but not one that's going to blow your hair back with monster hops. On the palate, it's maltier than a lot of IPAs and slightly sweeter owing to the signature blood orange flavor. Mixed with Campari ($29.95 for a 750 milliliter bottle), that fruity sweetness smooths the considerable edges of both beer and spirit, resulting in a refreshing combination that could be described either as a fortified IPA or carbonated Campari.
Either way, it's worth trying at least once. If you don't like the sum of this drink's parts, its parts are pretty great on their own.