Spirits: Two Campari challengers

Jason Wilson suggests trying an East Indian Negroni with something other than Campari. (Deb Lindsey for The Washington Post)
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By Jason Wilson
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, November 16, 2010; 4:04 PM

It's an immutable law of food and drink writing: You must invoke Proust's madeleine whenever you speak of taste and memory. I myself am guilty of comparing sloe gin, Dutch genever and a pork-roll-egg-and-cheese sandwich to Marcel's cookie. I'm sorry; rules are rules.

Still, the metaphor never gets old. And it was a pleasure to see Deirdre Heekin invoke that madeline in her delightful 2009 book, "Libation: A Bitter Alchemy," which I've recently been reading. "I'm trying to remember the first time I tasted Campari," she writes, in a chapter called "Ode to Campari." "What's difficult is isolating the occasion for the sense of that first taste: the setting, the weather, the conversation.

"Perhaps every Campari is a first Campari," Heekin suggests, "and each time you drink it the taste surprises you â?¦ and marks the experience that much more clearly, while at the same time bringing on a flood of all the past Campari."

I feel the same way. Campari has been part of my life for so long, I pretty much take it for granted. A bottle of the bitter red aperitif is always sitting in the door of my refrigerator, ready for a splash of club soda or orange, or to be mixed with sweet vermouth in an Americano. And then there is the Negroni, with gin and vermouth, about which I have waxed nostalgic before, at considerable length.

I'm always surprised, then, when I meet someone who hates Campari. When they say those three words - "I HATE Campari" - I feel it so palpably, it's as if they hate me, too.

But there was never anything I could do about it. You either like or don't like Gaspare Campari's 19th-century recipe for a 48-proof spirit, infused with 60 herbs, spices and fruit peels and colored bright red with cochineal, the mysterious red dye made from pulverized insects.

In Italy, there are number of red aperitivi called "bitter" (always in English). But in the United States, there has rarely been an alternative to Campari. Until recently, that is.

Over the past few months, two new bottles have appeared on the market that might change the landscape, for Campari lovers and haters alike.

One, Gran Classico Bitter, imported from Switzerland by Tempus Fugit Spirits, might be just the right introduction for people who didn't like their first experience with Campari. The other, Luxardo Bitter (by the same distiller that makes the Luxardo maraschino liqueur I often recommend), offers Campari lovers a cheaper option, at $17 compared to around $28 for Campari.

I tried both Grand Classico and Luxardo straight and then, in my ultimate test, mixed in a classic Negroni.

Gran Classico Bitter is not cheap (at $33), is a slightly higher proof than Campari and does not share the bright red color; it's instead a tawny brown. Served neat, Gran Classico is a lovely spirit, with a flowery nose, rhubarb and sweet orange on the tongue, and a long, bitter finish. But to me, it makes a strangely sweet Negroni; you don't even need an orange peel garnish. That, of course, might be appealing to someone who has never fallen in love with Campari.

I also tried it in a spritz as a substitute for Aperol (mixed with prosecco and club soda), and the strange bittersweet flavor wasn't quite right there, either. For those who already enjoy Italian bitters, I think I'd stick with drinking Gran Classico with just soda water (and be happy doing so).

Luxardo Bitter, on the other hand, offers an even more bracing bitter-forward taste than Campari, and it's not as viscous. It isn't something to take straight, but in the Negroni, Luxardo Bitter absolutely shined.

Now, Campari and its alternatives might seem to be more of a summer thing. But I think aperitivi such as these are great to serve as the first drink of the afternoon on Thanksgiving. After all, in Europe they're specifically consumed "to open" (in Latin, "aperire") the appetite. For that reason, I'm including here a new Negroni variation I'm enjoying, which calls for rum.

Heekin, in her book, poetically describes the role of such bitter spirits. "Each of us drinks our Campari and soda, trying to make the cocktail last, because when we finish we must go to dinner; and, while we are greatly anticipating dinner, it will mean we are that much closer to the end of the meal, and therefore the end of a blissful day."

Ah, bittersweet: just like Proustian nostalgia, and holidays, and the aperitif itself.


East Indian Negroni

Wilson is the author of "Boozehound" (Ten Speed Press, 2010). He can be reached at jasonwilson.com. Follow him at twitter.com/boozecolumnist.

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