The Bitter Pill

A few years ago, when I had saved up enough money/courage to travel to Italy, I did three things in very rapid succession:

  1. Read Thank You For Smoking
  2. Learn about the existence of the Negroni
  3. Order Negronis everywhere I went in the country

I don’t know what made me so fixated on the drink, aside from the fact that it sounded cool, and main character in the book ordered them, who I also thought was kind of cool (despite his moral ambiguity and — I suppose — the contents of the novel).  It just sounded terribly continental to me, and since that was the thrust of my journey, I embraced it fully.


Above: Someone I am not as cool as, for all the negronis in Italy

This, despite never actually having had the drink before, or Campari in general.  The thing to know about Campari, if you have yet to discover it, is that it’s something like gin taken to an entirely new level — rather than fruit, though, Campari is infused with floral and herbal flavors.  The product is a type of bitters that, boy howdy, really gets into bitterness.

This might be predictable enough if the color wasn’t so bright and vibrant a red, rosy and dark and promising of sweetness if it had any integrity at all.  But instead, Campari is tricky and complicated:  there is not even a trace of sugar, fruitiness or candy-fun in the bottle.  This is a grown-up liquor, adding serious flavor to indelicate drinks.

The Negroni is an even three-way split between gin, sweet vermouth and Campari, thus doubling down on the herbal flavors and coating them in a vermouth package.  Served in an old-fashioned glass, it’s eye-catching, bright and bold — and it brought tears to my eyes the first time I took a long draught of one.  My reaction brought joy to all the local Florentines, which I guess was a plus, and despite the strength I found I really enjoyed it.

Selling it to others, however, has proven more difficult.  “It’s just like gin, if instead of juniper you like the taste of flower petals,” is — incredibly — not a compelling argument for most people.

But!  Since I can’t loan out my copy of Thank You For Smoking to everyone I know, an alternate solution is required if I’m to spread my love of Campari.

With that in mind, we offer:

The Bitter Pill


The Bitter Pill is an aperitif, built by the colliding complexity of two liquors, highlighted by the brightness of citrus.  Served in a small cocktail glass, or stub martini glass, it is best enjoyed only slightly chilled — too much cold will blunt its flavors, and there are too many good ones here to miss.

To craft The Bitter Pill:

  • Chill the glass long enough for it to be cold to the touch
  • Measure 1 oz. of Campari and add it to the glass
  • Measure 1 oz. of bourbon and add it as well
  • Gently peel a wide twist of lemon, and drop it in
  • Stir liberally

The ludicrously bright red of the Campari and the rich brown of the bourbon will quickly merge, and the flavors will blend readily.  Campari’s complexities will fly to the fore, while the bourbon will provide enough sweetness to and finish and balance.

But not too much balance.  The Campari is still very much the center of attention, kicked up with the slight hint of lemon, providing the opportunity to savor the unapologetically bitter flavor before the molasses-sweet whiskey kicks in.  And in the wake of these two tiny ounces of lip-pinchingly strong flavors, draw your first breath and find what’s left behind: clean, floral refreshment and a lingering candy-sweetness.

Bitters like Campari aren’t the most accessible drinks in the world, but there’s a lot to love about their big, bold flavors.  I came to the Negroni because I wanted to be just a little bit cool (right up until I inspired chuckles with my coughing attack), but what I found was a class of liquor that helps create complex, interesting cocktails that deserve contemplation.

The Bitter Pill offers a little mini-sample of what Campari can do, and it’s a great way to get introduced to a bright, attention-getting drink.

  • Kristie

    I detest gin, with it’s juniper-y craptacularity. But I do love me some flower petals, so I’ll give it a shot (har!).

    You two are brilliant little baristas, you know.

    • Tina

      I prefer to think of us as publicans without the real estate…..

      Also – I could have gulped this by the bucketful. Campari didn’t grow on me right away, but when it did? Woooooomama.

  • Martin

    I have been reading your blog for a couple of months and this is the first drink that I feel strongly compelled to try. That may have something to do with my move to a country with more access to spirits. They like the stuff in Malta.

    I am the number two fan of Campari in this household. I’m interested in seeing what the addition of a woodsy brown spirit would do.

    Do you guys have any opinion on Maker’s Mark bourbon?

  • http://na marcelle roach

    please tell me the sugar content of campari is it fattening ????

    • Mike

      No more or less fattening than any other liquor! Pretty much everything in the unsweetened liquor/liqueur world has the same calorie content: About 90 calories per fluid ounce. So a given cocktail you’d order in a restaurant would run you 120 calories or so per “bar ounce”, assuming it’s mixed with zero-calorie drinks or club soda.

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