The sweetness of life and the bitter herbs of death: Campari

Campari sunrise. Liking often comes with an epiphany.

I first tried Campari with soda. We were sitting outside a restaurant, looking at the menu and thinking about lunch. For a moment the taste was fresh, clean, easily enjoyable; then came the choking bitterness. I drank again, just to make sure. Yes, it really was partially decocted from the bitter herbs of death. So I took the remainder down in one, like medicine. I never thought I’d return to it.

Several years later I had a sudden fancy for Campari while drinking in a bar, I don’t know why. It was the same, but this time it was weirdly tolerable, and the more I had, the more I liked it. It felt like Stockholm syndrome, or the later parts of 1984 where Winston Smith, having been tormented, at last realises that he loves Big Brother. But there it was … I loved Campari.

Occasionally I introduce it to friends. Some persevere beyond the early baffled horror, and some do not. It isn’t just another drink that you may or may not enjoy; liking it is like crossing a threshold, coming of age, joining a club. Any pleasure that comes with pain feels keener.

How to explain the strange, contradictory appeal of Campari?

In ancient Rome the greatest glory was to be awarded a triumph (triumphus), a civico-religious ceremony celebrating a great victory.

On the day of his triumph, the general wore regalia that identified him as near-divine or near-kingly. He rode in a chariot through the streets of Rome in unarmed procession with his army and the spoils of his war. At Jupiter’s temple on the Capitoline Hill he offered sacrifice and the tokens of his victory to the god. Thereafter he had the right to be described as vir triumphalis (‘man of triumph’, later known as triumphator) for the rest of his life.

During the triumph it is said that a slave would ride in the triumphator’s chariot, whispering memento mori, literally ‘remember to die’, but meaning ‘remember that you are mortal not a god and shall die’.  The sweetness of life and the bitterness of death. Taste and aftertaste. Drink and hangover. Campari.

Read my (very) short story Campari here.

On Campari and how to drink it

Official Campari

A little learning

Drinking Campari

The noble Negroni

Five Campari cocktails

The Americano is a simple drink, equal parts Campari and Italian (sweet) vermouth, with a splash of seltzer for effervescence. It was originally called the Milano–Torino (Campari from Milano, Cinzano vermouth from Torino). It became the Americano in the early twentieth century, as many American tourists favoured the drink, especially during Prohibition. Perhaps that was because Americans had acquired a taste for Campari stateside, as the US government had classified it as a medicinal product, available to savvy Americans by prescription (!). Substituting gin for the seltzer yields another delightful drink, the Negroni.

Philip Greene, To Have and Have Another: A Hemingway Cocktail Companion

Paul Fishman (Bristol, May 2014)

2 thoughts on “The sweetness of life and the bitter herbs of death: Campari

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