I first encountered Campari in 1980 at a hotel bar on Alonissos, a small island in the North Sporades group of islands in the Aegean sea, halfway between Athens and Thessaloniki. Camparisoda was the favourite beverage of a group of northern Italians who returned to the island year after year, and it soon caught on with the general clientele.
The combination of bittersweet aperitif and sparkling soda was superbly refreshing after a day of swimming and snorkeling. The Italians wouldn’t even change out of their bathing suits for that end-of-day cocktail, they just donned big white shirts and gathered under the umbrellas on the patio, Campari-soda in hand, to watch the sun sink down over the purple hills. For me, ever since, a Campari-soda has evoked sun, blue sky, white shirts, and the friendly bonhomie of that charming and elegant group of Italians.
Thirty-five years later, I have encountered Campari again in a new context, as one of the essential components of the Negroni, a cocktail that, along with the martini and the Manhattan, forms the pantheon of classics every bartender must know. The classic Negroni is a combination of gin, Campari, and sweet vermouth, garnished with a twist of orange peel. The invigorating bitterness of the Campari is balanced by the sweet vermouth, and the gin provides a cool, bracing undertone. It is a beautiful summer drink, almost impossible to get wrong.
And it has a great story. The Negroni was invented in 1919 by Count Camillo Negroni, a wild dude who busted broncos in the American west and learned to love gin while hanging out in London bars. One day, he asked his pal Fosco Scarselli, bartender at the Bar Casoni in Florence, to make him an Americano, a combination of Campari, sweet vermouth, and soda water favoured by the Americans who had discovered Northern Italy after the war. Except, the Count said, replace the soda with gin. And thus the Negroni was born.
The Americano was typically served with a twist of lemon. It is replaced by a twist of orange in the Negroni to signify that this is a very different drink. During the recent, delicious spell of hot weather, I went on a ski trip in the ice fields that straddle the Alaska-BC border near Haines. Our party of fi ve lucked out with day after day of blazing blue skies and temperatures in the low 20s. The simple palette of blue sky, snow, and gray rock evoked the blue sky, white buildings, and gray rock of Greece. So did the long, slow twilights, and the big white shirts some of us wore to stay cool.
On the third day of the trip, after a glorious, 500-metre ski down a slope that just kept opening up into one smooth, beautiful pitch after another, I announced that cocktail hour would be at 6:30 p.m. My husband added that “Yukon formal” attire was expected.
My secret surprise was a Negroni, premixed and kept cool in a stainless steel water bottle at the bottom of my polk. I had bought a precious lemon in Haines for garnish. There was no shortage of ice.
At cocktail time, people emerged from their tents and makeshift changing rooms, resplendent in their back country interpretations of Yukon formal attire. I cannot say that we achieved the elegance of the Northern Italian Campari drinkers in Greece, but there was an abundance of creativity in the uses found for bungee cords, down jackets, green and white striped boxing shorts, purple bandannas, and oversized white shirts.
Indeed, we felt we had attained a level of sophistication rarely seen at cocktail hour in a pass overlooking the Tsirku Glacier, and one that fully met the standard set by the stylin’, slightly whacked inventor of our cocktail, Camillo Negroni.
The Tsirku Glacier Negroni
1 ½ oz. Bombay Sapphire London Dry Gin
1 oz. Campari
1 oz. Martini & Rossi Rosso sweet vermouth
lemon twist (or orange, for true authenticity)
Stir all ingredients over ice. Strain into a rocks glass over a scoop of glacier ice, if available. Garnish with the twist.