The Sweet Birthday of a Beloved Bitter

Anna Stockwell

In 1860, Gaspare Campari, master drink maker at the Bass Bar in Turin, Italy, developed the formula for a new liqueur featuring more than 60 ingredients including fruit peels, spices, herbs, and barks. Campari, the cherry-red aperitif he created, celebrates its 150th birthday this year.

No one who has tasted the liqueur, originally called Bitter Uso Olando by Campari, can claim that the experience of savoring a Campari beverage is sweet; the 48-proof elixir takes much of its characteristic flavor from the bitter, aromatic bark of cascarilla, a shrub of West Indian origin. But Campari's edge makes it ideal for mixing, as a balance to sweeter juices and spirits, or with soda or water as a bright yet bittersweet beverage. An early cocktail featuring the spirit was the Americano, made with Campari and sweet vermouth, stirred and served over crushed ice with twists of both lemon and orange peels. Perhaps the most iconic Campari concoction is the Negroni, which was invented in 1919 at Italy's Casoni bar when Count Camillo Negroni ordered his Americano with one part gin as well as equal parts Campari and vermouth; you can watch a video preparation of the cocktail at Campari's website. Some prefer their Campari straight as the perfect prelude to a meal.

The taste for Campari has been cultivated not solely by sipping but through a century's worth of savvy advertising. From its early days, the brand has understood the power of marketing to entice; one of Gaspare Campari's early sales strategies involved allowing rival bar owners in northern Italy and southern France to buy and sell the liqueur if they agreed to display Campari ads in their establishments. Over the years, Gruppo Campari, the company that Gaspare Campari founded in 1860, has engaged noteworthy Italian artists like filmmaker Federico Fellini and modern-art great Bruno Munari to create commercials and print advertisements for the brand. The sensuality of the artwork, often featuring images of beautiful women (frequently liplocked with their lovers), is noteworthy; it's perhaps best represented by the 1920 "Red Passion" ad campaign, a concept by poster artist Marcello Dudovich. The company's masterwork, depicting a woman in a long dress being seduced by a man inches away from her lips in pink-tinged black and white, set the standard for the romance-themed campaigns that continue to this day.

In honor of the brand's 150th birthday, the company has released limited-edition Campari Art bottles featuring three different artistic plays on images of the number "150." If you're traveling to Italy this spring, you can also check out an exhibition of Campari advertisements from the past century and a half—including a 1950s image by Nino Nanni of the red bottle orbiting Earth and a famous Cubist-inspired ad by Ugo Nespolo for a 1990s World Cup in Brazil—which opened on March 18 at the brand's new Galleria Campari in Milan. —Nicole Weinberg, SAVEUR