In a battle of the adjectives, sweet doesn’t typically lose to bitter. Unless, of course, you’re talking cocktails. Behind the bar, the sharp, abrasive, and astringent are celebrated, and we owe the Italians a lot of credit for helping bring the profile to prominence.
Think aperitivo and chances are the words Campari and Aperol will follow soon after. The iconic liqueurs are called for, often interchangeably, in recipes designed as pre-meal cocktails intended to whet the appetite. But what really distinguishes these bitter, red-tinted cousins? Let’s take a look.
Aperitivo liqueurs—bittersweet wine- or spirit-based beverages flavored by a blend of citrus, spices, roots, and herbs—have been in production in Italy for over a century and, in typical fashion, recipes vary according to region. Campari is the older of the two, having been created in 1860 by Gaspare Campari in Milan. Aperol, meanwhile, was introduced by Paduan brothers Luigi and Silvio Barbieri in 1919. While both remain separate brands, the latter was actually purchased by the Campari Group and became one of its subsidiaries in the early 2000s. (Talk about cornering the market.)
Once in the glass, it is fairly easy to taste the difference between the two beverages. Though still technically bitter, Aperol is the distinctively sweeter of the two, with a higher sugar count. Coming in at a mere 11% ABV, its signature blend is dominated by bitter and sweet oranges and rhubarb, in addition to the secretly guarded ratio of herbs and spices. Campari, on the other hard, is significantly more bitter and boozy at 24% ABV, with a profile marked by orange zest and a pronounced herbaceousness, as well as some intense quinine, floral, and tart red berry flavors. All of these factors affect how the liqueurs are used in cocktails: Lighter, sweeter, and easier, Aperol is the more versatile of the two, and doesn’t need a balancing component like sweet vermouth to cut through the bitter like Campari typically does.
Of course, if you doubt the prowess of your palate, you can always differentiate the two based on color alone. Aperol has a significantly lighter, orangey red hue, whereas Campari is noted for its bold, electric red tint. Fun fact: Up until 2006, the latter’s signature crimson was achieved by dying the liquid with a pigment extracted from the cochineal beetle, a common practice in the category, but has since switched over to non-bug-based coloring agent.
Enjoy celebrating the differences between these two unique beverages in the following cocktail recipes.
1. The Classic Negroni
According to cocktail wiz Matt Seigel, a vet of New York’s Eleven Madison Park and NoMad, the secret to perfecting this 1:1:1 cocktail is balance of flavor, a well-chilled glass, and the timing of when to add the ice. This simple but timeless apéritif should be a staple in the repertoire of any legit home bartender. Get our Negroni recipe.
2. Negroni Sbagliato
The name may literally translate to “mistaken” or “imperfect” Negroni, but trust us, there is absolutely nothing wrong about this refreshing variation that trades the bold kick of gin for light, fizzy Prosecco. Get the recipe.
3. Slushy Negroni
Break out from your frozen Margarita and Strawberry Daiquiri routine this summer and give this delightful, grown-up slushy a spin. Plus, the added ice and texture help temper the bitterness of the Campari for those who usually find it a bit abrasive. Get our Slushy Negroni recipe.
More of a brown spirits fan? Try this Negroni-Manhattan mash-up for something with a rounder, richer profile to balance out the bitter Campari. While this rendition features bourbon, you can also substitute rye for something that offers a little more punch of spice. Get the recipe.
5. Aperol Spritz
This low-ABV number is the quintessential starter sipper (remember: cocktail parties are a marathon, not a sprint). A mellower, slightly sweeter interpretation of the Sbagliato above, it’s the perfect guilt-free, appetite-whetting primer. Get our Aperol Spritz recipe.
6. Aperol Cosmopolitan
The oh-so-dated Cosmo of Sex and the City yesteryear is made fresh and relevant once again by ditching the cranberry juice and triple sec and subbing in bittersweet Aperol. Get the recipe.
7. Aperol Tequila Swizzle
The bright orange peel profile of Aperol plays nicely with punchy blanco tequila, coming together in a drink that is citrusy, savory, and effortlessly refreshing. Get the recipe.
8. Gin-Campari Sour
As much as we love them, there’s more to do with Campari than a standard Negroni variation. Take this frothy sour, for example, which softens the bitter and acidic edges of the main ingredients by shaking in an egg white. Get the recipe.