First you mastered making the Negroni. Then you pushed the limits of the classic Italian cocktail by experimenting with different gins. Now it’s time to continue your bittersweet journey by swapping out the sacred Campari. From a fruity, wine-based aperitif, to an aggressively bitter amaro infused with cinchona bark, these seven spirits each put their own unique twist on the iconic cocktail.
While Luxardo is best known for their Maraschino liqueur, the Italian brand also makes a line of incredibly delicious and extremely versatile bitter aperitivo spirits. Their neon red-hued Bitter, infused with bitter orange, marjoram, thyme and rhubarb, is one of our favorites. With its delicate sweetness, zesty orange tang and creamy texture, Luxardo Bitter has just enough bite to stand up to juniper-heavy gin and sweet vermouth in a Negroni. Or try it in a citrus-forward Campari cocktail like the Siesta (for a White Negroni, use the brand's Bitter Bianco).
Cappelletti Aperitivo Americano $20
Unlike Campari, this bitter Italian aperitivo is made with wine (specifically, Uni Blanc), giving the spirit a deep richness and subtle fruitiness, which the traditional Negroni lacks. Velvety in body, Cappelletti has an almost fruit punch-like quality, and a bitter, orangey, strawberry jam-esque flavor. While it’s an amazing addition to cocktails—from a Negroni to an Americano—Cappelletti is one of those rare bitter spirits that can actually be sipped on its own too.
Hailing from Buffalo, New York, this bitter spirit is one of the best Campari substitutes made stateside. Distilled by Lockhouse Distillery, from a corn base with grapefruit peels and coriander, Ibisco Bitter liqueur is infused with 18 different bittering agents and botanicals, then slightly sweetened and colored with cochineal—the traditional, insect-based coloring agent that Campari once used. It has a lasting, mellow bitterness, and notes of candied grapefruit, cassia bark and vanilla. When making a Negroni with this spirit, garnish the cocktail with a fat swath of grapefruit peel; it will heighten the citrus flavors inherent in the aperitivo.
While this bitter aperitivo may lack Campari’s intense red color, it makes up for it in flavor. Made using a recipe that dates back to the 1860s, Tempus Fugit’s bitter apéritif is bursting with herbaceous bitterness. Infused with over 25 different botanicals, including wormwood, gentian, bitter orange peel, rhubarb and hyssop, it is incredibly complex. Though gentian and rhubarb dominate, the spirit has notes of pine resin, elderflower and orange creamsicle. With a lasting bitterness and a silky sweetness, this spirit is so delicious that you may never go back to using Campari.
First created in 1933, Contratto Bitter is one of the few spirits on this list that matches the herbal complexity of Campari. Infused with over 24 different botanicals—including wormwood, bitter orange peel, rhubarb, nettle, sage and juniper—this bitter aperitivo is a sophisticated, all-natural elixir. Unlike Campari, which uses artificial coloring now, Contratto Bitter’s vibrant red-hue comes from a beet extract and hibiscus, which are infused into the base spirit (an Italian brandy). Meant to be mixed, Contratto Bitter has a strong enough backbone that it can stand up to even the most juniper-heavy gin in a Negroni or the most peppery rye whiskey in a Boulevardier.
From the quintessential vermouth brand comes this bitter aperitivo. Infused with cinchona bark—which gives tonic water its signature flavor—this crimson-hued spirit is the most bitter of the lot. Less sweet than Campari, with an extra bit of oomph, this spirit is for fans of extremely intense amari—and drier Negronis. Behind the bitterness lie notes of honeycomb sweetness, candied orange rind and white pepper. Lively and vivacious, this bold bitter is the perfect match for an ultra-boozy, navy strength gin. It’s the perfect Campari alternative for a Negroni fanatic who isn’t playing around.
Hailing from Washington D.C., this beautiful, dark cherry-hued aperitivo from Don Ciccio & Figli is aggressively bitter—and better for it. With a flavor somewhere between a fernet and Campari, this delightfully pungent spirit creates a Negroni with serious heft. With subtle notes of grapefruit rind (more pith than citrus), hibiscus and a sharp, woodsy finish of cinchona bark, this spirit is for serious amari drinkers only. While it lacks some of Campari’s medicinal sweetness and bright citrus tang, the addition of a crisp, London Dry (like Tanqueray 10 or Bombay Sapphire) and a Barolo Chinato in place of vermouth will soften the spirit and create a superbly balanced cocktail.