It’s Negroni Week so I’m deep in the woods with Campari and other red apertifs this week. The basic ratio and recipe of the Negroni make it an easy cocktail to play with. But what if you played with one of the basic ingredients that make it so distinctive? What if you played with the aromas and flavors of the Campari with a Campari infusion?
And the idea of doing a fun set of Campari infusions was born. From some common ones that I see over and over to some more unique ones I don’t see often on social media or in bars, these infusions are a fun way to play with adding to the complexity and flavor profile of Campari, but still retain its essential nature as a bar essential.
What is Campari?
Let’s start with the basics. Campari is a bitter aperitif made in Italy. An aperitif is a class of spirits that are relatively low in alcohol content and have a bittersweet flavor that can come from an infusion of herbs and plants. The actual recipe of Campari is a closely guarded secret, but I can tell you what it tastes like to me.
Campari has strong flavors of orange, cherry, clove and cinnamon to me. Its bittersweet flavors give cocktails layers of interest – from the initial hit of bitter orange to the lingering sweet baking spices and cherry at the end. I find that as it dilutes it becomes sweeter, but at the finish of each sip, a lingering bitterness remains.
The more cocktails I make, the more I fall in love with bitterness and the intrigue of trying to define it as I sip the cocktail. Each year my aperitif and digestif collections grow with more and more bottles of bittersweet Amari. I’m currently hiding them in the laundry room as my bar shelves are full.
Campari is the lovely liqueur at the center of the classic Negroni, typically made with equal parts gin, Campari and sweet vermouth. But one of the easiest and most fun ways to play with the flavor profile of Campari is with an infusion. We’re infusing with strawberries (a classic), pineapple, coffee (to die for), cocoa nibs, pepper and chilis, lavender, and rosemary. Or you can use whatever pantry items you have on hand that might add some interesting layers to Campari’s flavor profile.
What Cocktails Do You Use Infused Campari in?
The quick answer is whatever you’d like! The easiest way to learn more about the infusion and how it will taste in a Campari cocktail is to try it in a spritz: 2 oz of your infusion, 3 oz of prosecco and 1 oz soda water. Those elements let the infusion take center stage.
Other classic Campari cocktails are the Negroni, the Boulevardier, and the Americano. All three keep Campari front and center – which is easy as it’s bright red and bold in flavor. I’ll have suggestions for each infusion of possible cocktail ideas to try.
Why Infuse Campari?
As a spirit, Campari, and most apertifs, have a lot going on. From multiple layers of flavors, infusions of dozens of herbs and plants and different types of sweetening agents, Campari’s complex flavors might seem to indicate they don’t need any additions.
But there are hints of flavors in there that you can bring out with an infusion. The coffee infusion, which is amazing, brings out coffee but also chocolate notes. And the rosemary makes the Campari infusion taste and smell herbaceous and slightly salty. The spicy pepper infusion is searing, but in small quantities it will be a magnificent way to extend that bitter finish with some heat. I’m thinking of looking at mezcal for that one.
So, let’s start with a classic that’s an all-time favorite and must try.
Strawberry Campari Infusion
A classic infusion of Campari and strawberries starts off the list. Fresh strawberries add sweetness and tartness to Campari’s complex layers. But in a cocktail, they smooth out the bitterness, and make an aperitif that’s easy to sip on its own or build into a Campari cocktail.
- 1 cup chopped fresh strawberries
- 1.5 cups Campari
Place the strawberries in a clean jar with the Campari and let infuse for 24 hours. Strain out the strawberries, put the infusion in a clean glass jar and store in the fridge. Will keep for a month or two in the fridge.
Suggested uses: This makes an amazing Negroni with a fruity gin and a dry vermouth. The sweetness from the strawberries means you won’t have to use a sweet vermouth to counter Campari’s inherent bitterness. If you prefer, switch to half and half sweet and dry vermouth if you feel like you still want that slight sweet wine taste of the sweet vermouth.
Another incredible cocktail would be a rosé spritz with this – 2 oz of strawberry-infused Campari, 3 oz of rosé and a splash of soda water. Bellissima!
Pineapple Campari Infusion
In the heat of summer, I was awash in pineapples and needed a way to use a batch of pineapple before it passed its prime. Infusing Campari with pineapple sweetened the Campari but opened up a lot of possibilities with tiki-inspired Campari infusion cocktails.
- 2 rounds of pineapple peeled, chopped
- 2 cups Campari
Place the pineapple in a clean jar with the Campari and let infuse for 1 to 2 days in the fridge depending on how sweet the pineapple is and how strong you’d like your infusion. Strain out the pineapple and put the infusion in a clean glass gar and store in the fridge. Will keep for a month or two in the fridge.
Suggested uses: A tiki-esque Negroni is where I would start. See this Dreams of Tiki Boulevardier for an easy riff on the Negroni.
This infusion goes well in any tiki drink that might use allspice dram or bitter liqueurs to counter the sweet fruit juices and rums found in the tiki basics. Try my Boulevardier of Tiki Dreams.
But if you want to keep it simple, go with an Americano riff – an ounce of the pineapple-infused Campari, an ounce of sweet vermouth and a top off of very cold seltzer water on the rocks. Keep in mind Americanos are best made with very cold ingredients to keep the bubbles present throughout the drinking of the Campari cocktail.
Coffee-Infused Campari is the Stuff Dreams are Made of
Now we are at my favorite infusion, and one that I vividly remember trying at a Willett Distillery dinner a few years ago hosted at Proof on Main in Louisville Kentucky. Served as the last of many cocktails, and paired with dessert, this cocktail made our whole table gasp. On the nose, rich chocolate notes, with the cocktail flavor earthy, bitter coffee in the Boulevardier riff.
The next night I bought a bottle of Campari and started infusing with coffee.
- 3 Tablespoons of dark roast coffee beans, cracked slightly with a muddler
- 1 cup Campari
Place the coffee beans in a clean jar with the Campari and let infuse for 1 day. If you want a darker, bitter espresso flavor, either continue infusing, or use darker roast beans. Continue to check the infusion every 4 to 8 hours until you’re satisfied. Strain and store in a clean glass jar in the fridge for 1 to 2 months.
Suggested uses: Fantastic in a Boulevardier, especially with a mid-proof bourbon. This tastes wildly of coffee, bitterness and bourbon, with notes of vermouth under it all. It’s a Campari infusion you’ll keep coming back to.
Negronis turn dark brown with this infusion, but with the flavor, you won’t care. I usually stick with a London Dry Gin, but a sweeter Old Tom Gin or an herbaceous Genever might be an interesting experiment. If you try one of those, please let me know.
Rosemary Campari Infusion
This infusion completely surprised me. I get a lot of orange and grapefruit from Campari, and I know I love to infuse and mix with a combination of those and rosemary. It gives the Campari infusion this herbaceous, slightly salty nose and taste. It doesn’t enhance the sweetness, and it doesn’t pull out more bitterness, the rosemary somehow ties to the citrus notes and makes them even more prevalent with that herbal nose from the rosemary.
This infusion makes me think of winter and the holidays.
- 4 Tablespoons of dried rosemary
- 1 cup Campari
Place the dried rosemary in a clean jar with the Campari and let infuse for 1 to 2 days. This one will differ based on how fresh and vibrant your dried rosemary is for the infusion. Check every 4 to 8 hours after the first 24 hours. Strain and store in the fridge in a clean glass jar. Will keep 1 to 2 months.
Suggested uses: Over ice, with a few cranberries, a bit of prosecco and a sprig of rosemary you’ll have your guests charmed for holiday and winter cocktails.
The rosemary will also play well with juniper-forward gins in a traditional Negroni. And if you prefer a Boulevardier, a touch of blood orange liqueur or bitters can serve as a bridge between the rosemary and the bourbon.
Lavender Campari Infusion
While coffee and strawberry infusions of Campari are fairly standard, I don’t see many people experimenting with floral infusions of Campari. Campari’s citrus notes pair well with the floral in lavender. And since lavender aromas are anything but subtle, they stand up well to the Campari. This infusion heightens the bitterness of the liqueur and leaves a lasting floral finish. If you love floral gins or liqueurs, you’ll enjoy this. If you don’t, you may feel like you’re drinking a floral bouquet.
After the first infusion, I reduced the amount of time and the amount of the infusion to give you more control over the number of floral flavors and aromas in the infusion.
- 1/2 Tablespoon dried lavender
- 1 cup Campari
Place the dried lavender and the Campari in a clean jar and let infuse for 4 hours. Taste the infusion. If needed, let it continue to infuse until it has a lovely floral scent and flavor, but not too much floral bitterness in the finish. I infused 1 tablespoon for 8 hours and it was too long. Strain into a clean glass jar and store in the fridge for 1 to 2 months.
Suggested uses: Use for a floral Boulevardier with a touch of honey syrup to tone down the extended bitter finish. Or pair with a fruit prosecco for a spritz with a bit of sweet vermouth to sweeten the flavors.
Cacao Nib Campari Infusion
Rich dark chocolate notes, bitterness, none of the sweetness you find in semisweet chocolate, just a tiny bit of sweet, like those 90% dark chocolate bars you buy because they’re “healthy.” But in this case, because it’s within the Campari, the bitterness is more rounded, and it’s just a touch sweet. Not enough that it tastes like standard chocolate, but with a mid-palate creaminess that holds a little of that bitterness in the mouth.
- 1 Tablespoon cacao nibs
- 1 cup Campari
Place the cacao nibs in a clean glass jar and add the Campari. Let infuse for at least 24 hours, longer if you want to really pull in the chocolatey flavors. Strain into a clean glass jar and store in the fridge for 1 to 2 months.
Suggested uses: Call me crazy, but this makes me think of an Affogato – a scoop of ice cream or orange sorbet with an ounce or two of this on top, and maybe a sprinkle of nutmeg and or a dash of coffee.
Or a cocoa Americano with just a touch of the sweet vermouth and a dusting of chocolate shavings on top.
Peppercorn and Chili-Infused Campari – Spicing Your Cocktail
Did you need a little heat in your life? We talk about Campari cocktails as ones that take part in Italy’s famous Aperitivo culture, but what if we used it more aggressively, and put a little more heat and spice into the Campari for the cocktail.
This infusion adds a lot of heat but also introduces some vegetal notes to the Campari. It reminds me of the smell of pepper as you crack the corns in a pepper mill. The heat of it lingers in the finish, turning your last perception of the infusion to a combination of bitterness and spicy heat.
- 1 dried Thai chili
- 1 Tablespoon peppercorns
- 1 cup Campari
Place the dried chili and the peppercorn in a clean glass jar and add Campari. Let infuse for 12-24 hours or until you get a good dose of the vegetal taste of the peppercorn and a lingering spice and heat in the mouth from the chili and peppercorn. Strain and store in the fridge in a clean glass jar.
Suggested uses: This infusion can be very spicy, but I know it’s going to be one I combine with the chocolate, a split base of mezcal and tequila and a bit of sweet vermouth for a switched up Mexican Negroni that may show up on the Instagram feed in the next few days.
Because of the heat, I think this would be an absolute win in an Americano with a sweet citrus liqueur added as well.
Campari Infusions for your Campari Cocktails
One of the best parts of Campari infusions is adding fun layers to the already complex flavors of the aperitif. Not all infusions work out, and if I were to start over again, I would use the measurements above (adjusted based on my initial experiments) to tame the floral bitterness in the finish of the lavender Campari and the heat of the peppercorn and chili Campari.
Invent Your Own Infusions
When you go to start infusions, think of flavors that complement or match the aromas and flavors of the base spirit. And then think about flavors that contrast the main ones. Both can lead to interesting results. When putting together this list, I had no idea that rosemary would be such a lovely infusion. I also expected more from the peppercorn and chili infusion, but I do think it could spice up a Bloody Mary in a fun and unusual way.
So, take a risk and look around in your kitchen, you may find you have more to play with than you think when it comes to infusions. I’d try toasted nuts or dried fruits to see how the fats and sugars in each affected the overall flavor and mouthfeel of the infusions. However, I ran out of Campari before I ran out of ideas.
But it’s Negroni Week, so I’m sure I’ll be able to find more on the shelves.
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