When it comes to the colour red in drinks, usually the first spirit that comes to mind would be Campari.
Invented in 1860 by an Italian drink-maker named Gaspare Campari, Campari is an amaro, or Italian herbal liqueur, that is arguably one of the most recognisable spirits in the world, thanks to the brilliant blood red colour of the spirit.
“It’s a very sexy, aggressive and passionate red! And as soon as you see it you know it’s a Campari,” said Symphony Loo, regional brand ambassador for Campari, who was in town recently for a guest shift at Coley Cocktail Bar. “Some drinks can look transparent, so you can just add 5ml of Campari to add some colour into it.”
The colour isn’t the only defining element of Campari – there’s also its uniquely bitter but complex symphony of flavours, which has made it an important ingredient in many classic cocktails, such as the Negroni (one part gin, one part Campari, and one part vermouth rosso) and its forefather the Americano (Campari, sweet vermouth, club soda), the Boulevardier (whisky, sweet vermouth, and Campari), and also the Jungle Bird, Malaysia’s only internationally recognised classic cocktail, which uses rum, Campari, lime juice, pineapple juice and simple syrup.
Gaspare’s original Campari recipe contained more than 60 natural botanicals and spices, including Chinotto (a small, bitter citrus fruit used in many Italian amaro brands) and a shrub called Cascarilla (its bark is used for flavouring as well as for medicinal purposes). Till today, the recipe is a closely guarded secret.
If you taste it neat, the first thing you’ll get is a strong oily bitterness akin to that of orange peels and citrus, along with various herbs (“I get very distinct rosemary flavours,” said Loo) and spices.
“Besides the classic cocktails, I use Campari in different ways as well. Campari can be very bitter, and in our culture, we don’t usually go for bitter drinks. So I usually use Campari to round out my cocktails,” Loo said. “You can just use 5ml of it to round out a citrusy drink, or you can use it as a main flavour in a drink.”
For someone who has never tried Campari, Loo suggested first trying a refreshing Campari spritz (a common Italian aperitif made with Campari topped up with Prosecco or sparkling wine), and add a squeeze of calamansi. “With our weather, a refreshing drink will never go wrong. The reason I use calamansi is to give it a balance of flavours so the Campari isn’t too bitter,” she said.
Gaspare’s son, Davide Campari, was another of the company’s most influential figures.
With his father, Davide created the iconic Campari Soda drink, and also revolutionised the way Campari marketed and advertised its product.
Davide is also central to one of Campari’s best known legends, a love story between him and opera singer, Lina Cavalieri.
“They were both in love, but Lina had to move from Milan to France for another show. So, Davide decided to take a bottle of Campari and went to France, where he started to sell it there, and it became popular in France as well.
“It’s a story that we like to link with Campari itself, because that’s how Davide started exporting Campari outside Italy,” Loo said.
The Singapore-based Johor Baru-born only started bartending six years ago, at the One-Ninety Bar in Four Seasons Hotel, Singapore. She then moved on to Singaporean cocktail bar Cufflink Club, before joining Neon Pigeon in 2015 as bar manager, and stepping up to be the group bar manager for The Dandy Partnership, which runs Neon Pigeon, Fat Prince, The Ottomani, and Summerlong in Singapore.
Loo took on the Campari brand ambassador position last year, and now travels around the region educating bartenders and consumers about Campari and the other brands in its portfolio.
“If it wasn’t Campari, I probably wouldn’t have become a brand ambassador. I just love the brand a lot, and that’s why I agreed to take the job,” she said.
“I love Negronis so much I even have a tattoo of a Negroni on my arm! I have always felt that Campari is the main character in a Negroni.
“You can use any gin or vermouth you want, but if you replace the Campari, it just wouldn’t taste the same!
“Yes, some of the other amaro brands may taste similar, but for me, if a Negroni doesn’t use Campari, I will feel like there is something missing in the drink!”