How to Stop Worrying and Learn to Love Bitter Drinks

This one was fun, one of the times when the words started flowing and didn’t stop until I was finished writing.

Following up on last week’s discussion of the Negroni, I thought I’d take a bit of time and explore the world of bitter liqueurs. As I said then, “You hate Campari until that one moment when you love it, and then when you love it you never want your bottle to run dry.” But how does one go about learning to love Campari and, for that matter, other bitter liqueurs?

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Campari 2014

I don’t normally post about this sort of thing, but Campari just announced that Uma Thurman is its calendar star this year. I know it’s not a universal opinion, but I think Uma’s great in nearly everything I’ve seen, and I also think she’s stunning. Campari’s released a few behind-the-scenes shots, and here’s one you might like:


Campari Calendar 2014_BTS (7)

La Rosita

At Serious Eats, I contributed a drink to a new feature, “The Best Cocktails We Drank in [a given month].” This previous month being April, it was April’s turn to be the given month. The remit was, pick a drink you loved, whether out or at home. We don’t really get out much, for several reasons, so it would have to be a drink at home. I chose something new, a drink I’d never had or made before. My comments on the site were …

“Reposado tequila, sweet and dry vermouth, Campari, and Angostura bitters combine for the La Rosita, a spin on the classic Negroni cocktail. I mixed this one up at home for a crisp springtime refresher. Tequila and Campari play very well together, making for an herbal, lightly bitter drink that highlights tequila’s agave flavor.”—Michael Dietsch, Cocktail 101 columnist

Now, the recipe:

La Rosita

  • 1-1/2 ounces reposado tequila
  • 1/2 ounce sweet vermouth
  • 1/2 ounce dry vermouth
  • 1/2 ounce Campari
  • 1 dash Angostura bitters

Stir all ingredients over ice in a mixing glass. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass. No garnish.

For tequila, I used Espolon Reposado. For sweet vermouth, Cinzano; for dry, M&R.

Disclaimer: The Espolon and Campari were sent to me for review purposes by Campari America. I had never before had the Espolon and I quite liked it. I would consider buying it again, but I would consider other reposados before Espolon. As for Campari, I almost always have a bottle on hand, usually purchased with my own money. But to cover my ass, I probably can’t fail to disclose that Campari America sent me a bottle.

Photograph © Jennifer Hess

MxMo: Brown, Bitter, and Stirred

Welcome to Mixology … uh, Wednesday? Okay, I’m well behind this time, but what the hell, right? The theme this month is Brown, Bitter, and Stirred, and it’s hosted by Lindsay Johnson of Lush Life Productions. Lindsay, it turns out, has a standing order she uses when walking into a bar; it’s this month’s theme, and I think it speaks for itself.

The first thing that came to mind when I thought of this was the Boulevardier, the Negroni variant starring bourbon in gin’s place. I freakin’ love this drink. I went with Bulleit for the bourbon, Carpano Antica for the sweet vermouth, and to really be an iconoclast, Campari for the Campari. (I wasn’t the first to post about it, alas, but hey. Kevin’s a decent type of fellow; he won’t mind.)

The Boulevardier

photo by Jennifer Hess

Equal parts, in my case 1-1/2 ounces apiece because I’m a lush. Brown, bitter, stirred. That Lindsay’s pretty smart.

Rojo Bianco

A while back, I got a sample of Don Julio Reposado Tequila. I poke around in several directions to find a recipe to mix it into, and found this drink, from the 2008 Food and Wine Cocktails.

This drink is a Philip Ward joint, from Death & Co. in New York City.

Rojo Bianco

  • Ice
  • 2 oz. reposado tequila
  • 1/4 oz. bianco vermouth
  • 1/4 oz. Campari
  • 1/4 oz. maraschino liqueur
  • dash of Angostura bitters

Technique: Stir all ingredients over ice, and strain into a chilled coupe. No garnish.

Man, this is an odd drink. Tequila and Campari. Bianco vermouth and maraschino. I have a perhaps surprising analogy to describe this drink, so bear with me.

Nearly forty years ago, Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash recorded a bunch of duets together, but none of them really worked out. (What a wasted opportunity, guys. How could you have screwed this up? Oh yeah, drugs.) The one song that even partly succeeded, “Girl From the North Country,” appeared on Dylan’s album Nashville Skyline.

The Rojo Bianco reminds me of that song. The lead ingredients, tequila and Campari, never really harmonize. They don’t clash, but they don’t come together either. You listen to the song and think about their voices, twirling around each other, but never melding. At the same time you think about the mains, you forget about the backing band. You know it’s there, but you pay attention to Dylan and Cash and forget anything else. The bianco and maraschino definitely sweeten the drink and balance the Campari’s bitterness, but aside from softening the Campari, they fade behind the dueling vocals. I don’t know whether it matters to use bianco vermouth instead of regular French vermouth.

And yet, I love “Girl From the North Country.” I hear the other tracks these guys recorded in those sessions, and I hate them for squandering the moment. But “Girl…” is a good song, despite how broken it is. And the Rojo Bianco is a good cocktail, even though the ingredients never harmonize.

Edited to add: Joaquin Simo, Phil’s colleague at Death & Co., left a comment below that F&W misprinted Phil’s recipe. I haven’t tested the proper version yet, but here it is:

Rojo Bianco–Phil Ward

  • 2 oz. El Tesoro Reposado tequila
  • 3/4 oz. M & R bianco vermouth
  • 1/4 oz. Campari
  • 1/4 oz. Luxardo maraschino liqueur
  • dash of Angostura bitters

Technique: Stir all ingredients over ice, and strain into a chilled coupe. No garnish.

MxMo in the Crescent City

Mixology Monday logoFor this month’s Mixology Monday, which has a New Orleans theme, I’m going with a couple of drinks, both inspired by panels that I attended at Tales of the Cocktail.

The first drink is the Sloppy Joe’s Mojito, inspired obliquely by the To Have and Have Another panel, on the drinking life of Ernest Hemingway. Whether Hemingway actually drank Mojitos appears to be in some dispute. The eminent Eric Felten argues persuasively that he probably did not, but it is clear that old Papa frequented the Havana bar that originated this version of the classic rum drink. He even apparently persuaded the proprietor of a Key West saloon to rip off the Havana original’s name. So, who knows?

Charles Baker, writing in The Gentleman’s Companion, describes the drink thus:

Put several lumps of ice into a 16 oz collins glass, toss in 1 tsp sugar or gomme, insinuate a spiral green lime peel about the ice, turn in 1-1/2 jiggers of Bacardi; white, or Gold Seal, and the strained juice of 1 small green lime–not a lemon. Stir once, fill with really good club soda and garnish with a bunch of fresh mint.

What I love about this variant is that a) it’s not too sweet, and b) it’s not too minty. I don’t feel like I’m chewing rum-spiked Doublemint gum.

The second drink comes straight from the Beefeater reception at Palace Cafe and also the Juniperlooza session. I had heard of this drink prior to Tales, but I had never tried it. It’s the Jasmine cocktail, devised by architect and booze writer Paul Harrington. It tastes remarkably like grapefruit juice even though it contains no grapefruit whatsoever. Honestly, this is one of those drinks that I often post where I’m sure the majority of my single-digit readership is thinking, “What! New to the Jasmine? He needs to crawl out from under Plymouth Rock or wherever the hell he lives and actually drink from time to time!”

No argument here, Skippy. I will say this, though. I’ve mixed a lot of cocktails at home, and I’ve had many others out. It’s a rare treat when something passes my lips and earns a spot in my regular drinks rotation. The Jasmine is right there. Jen and I both adore it. It tastes like an old-school cocktail, even though it’s not old enough to drive, let alone drink, and the ingredients are perfectly balanced. A new favorite.


  • 1-1/2 oz gin
  • 3/4 oz lemon juice
  • 1/4 oz Cointreau
  • 1/4 oz Campari
  • lemon twist for garnish

Technique: Shake, strain, add garnish, sip, and smile.

Many thanks to Paulernum Clarke for hosting.

Photos by Jennifer Hess.

MxMo: Mintology Monday

MxMo MintThe third MixMo challenge concerns mint (many thanks to Rick for hosting), which is lucky for me because it grows in abundance in our backyard garden. But I had to think for a while before deciding what to make. At first, I thought to perhaps do something with crème de menthe, but neither of us really likes it, so that was out.

I wanted to use the opportunity to try something new, or to vary an old recipe, rather than going boring and doing an unaltered stand-by such as a julep or a smash. But then Jen said, “Hey, didja think about doing an infusion?” (I’ve often talked about doing one but never gotten around to it.) With that good suggestion, I hit the ground running.

Backyard mintSo I headed out back and snipped off several mint leaves. I brought them inside, washed and dried them thoroughly, put them into a mason jar, and poured Very Old Barton bourbon over the leaves. I let it steep for three days, sampling it each evening, before finally removing the leaves. I used the minty VOB as the base for a simple, minty old-fashioned: bourbon, sugar, and bitters over ice, garnished with mint. It was nice, but not really that dissimilar from a julep.

Minty Old FashionedAs an unrelated “project,” I hit Google to find some good non-Negroni recipes that called for gin and Campari. I wanted a new (to us) recipe using Campari since although we both like Negronis, we wanted to try something different. In the midst of searching, I came across a review of a California restaurant called Cascal. The comments on the review included this intriguing quote:

Went here last night on a friends recommendation. Started with the La Gitana cocktail (gin, campari, mint, lemon and lime juice) which was good but awfully small for $8.

Those ingredients intrigued me, but I was on my own to determine proportions and preparation techniques. I hit up Google for more information but found nothing. If anyone’s encountered this drink before, please tell me. So one night last week, I experimented. I muddled mint leaves in a mixing glass with sugar and added equal parts gin and Campari, and a half-part each of lemon and lime juices (in other words, the combined citrus juices totaled one part–to balance the gin and Campari). The resulting cocktail was satisfying, but possibly too minty and sweet.

La GitanaSunday night, I tried again. This time, I kept the liquid proportions the same but I reduced the sugar and I didn’t muddle the mint. The mint still released its oils during shaking, thus flavoring the drink, but it was a subtler component of the cocktail. The result is a complex, well-balanced drink. What’s funny about it is that the Campari lays low while you sip, waiting until the finish to really kick your teeth.

La Gitana

  • 1 oz. gin
  • 1 oz. Campari
  • ½ oz. lemon juice
  • ½ oz. lime juice
  • 1 tsp. sugar (I used turbinado)
  • 4 mint leaves

Shake all ingredients over ice, and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. You can fine-strain to filter out the bits of mint leaves, or you can keep them in like I did and leave out a garnish. (I think they’re pretty, but they’re not to everyone’s tastes.)

This will sound strange, but I must confess to disliking the name “Gitana.” It’s the Spanish feminine form of “gypsy,” and it’s just a bit, I dunno, kitsch for my tastes, calling to mind gypsy stereotypes. But I don’t know when a drink becomes “yours” enough that you can rename it, so here I’ll just call it Gitana.