Cocktail Hacks

Red Italian Bitters and How to Use Them

When we think of bitters, a compact bottle of angostura or peychauds tends to come to mind before a 750mL bottle of alcohol that sits on a shelf next to our favorite gin, whiskey, and tequila. However, just as there are bottled sugars that can be used to sweeten and thicken cocktails (vermouths, liqueurs, etc.), there are also bottled bitters that can be added to a drink. While there are plenty of options when it comes to bottled bitters, I’m going to be specifically talking today about the red Italian bitters that are used to flavor Italy’s most popular drinks: the Negroni and the Aperol Spritz.

Because next week is Negroni Week, we’re going to be using a wide range of these bitters in the live classes. While Campari is the mainstay for this boozy cocktail, Aperol and Cappelletti are excellent choices for when you’re not quite up to the aggression of the original recipe. Read more below to see which red bitter is right for you!

The Original Bad Boy of the Bar: Campari

Campari is the No. 1 red bitter and the love of my life. Its bittersweet grapefruit flavor is essential to a classic Negroni, and it has been enjoyed in Italy since it was created in the 19th century. This bitter is more straightforward than the other two bottles on this list making it an excellent choice for citrusy cocktails that feature heavier, house-made syrups. The complexity of this spirit means it plays well with others, pairing spectacularly with everything from rum to fruit juices to spics and herbs. At just 24% ABV, it makes for a damn good low-proofed cocktail.

If you’re just now getting into the world of bitter spirits, congrats! You’re already familiar with the ultimate red bitter. However, newcomers to this style can find this bottle a little astringent, the grapefruit flavor too strong on the palate to taste the other ingredients. If you’re just starting your love affair with Campari, I suggest beginning with long style drinks (cocktails that have more mixer in them than spirit) such as a Campari and Soda/Tonic or a Campari and Pineapple Juice.

Campari is a spirit that makes just about any cocktail better. Add a bar spoon to your Palomas and margaritas for a slightly bitter edge; mix it with beer for something delicious to balance the hops; shake it with lemon juice and sugar syrup or mix with soda water and oranges for a perfect low-proof before dinner cocktail. Or take a shot by itself—that’s my favorite way of drinking this Italian treat.

ABV: 24%

Tasting Notes: Grapefruit, Sweet cherry, Bitter Orange, Gentian

Cocktails to Try: Negroni, Campari Sour, Americano, Jungle Bird

The Next Runner-Up: Aperol

If you like the idea of Campari more than drinking it in practice, Aperol might be the right choice for you! This bottle lacks Campari’s characteristic grapefruit flavor, leaning heavily into orange and vanilla for a softer, slightly less dry bitter. Aperol is beautiful in a cocktail, but it truly shines in the Aperol Spritz: 2 oz Aperol poured over ice and topped with a splash of soda water and Prosecco.

Because Aperol shares so many similar flavors with Campari, it’s a great choice to substitute into traditional cocktails that can be too bitter for new drinkers. It’s also slightly lower in proof, sitting at 11% ABV, which means it’s ideal for drinking during the day or before dinner.

ABV: 11%

Tasting Notes: Orange, Vanilla, Rhubarb

Cocktails to Try: Aperol Spritz, Naked & Famous

The New Kid: Cappelletti

Okay, Cappelletti isn’t exactly new. In fact, it’s probably the oldest bitter of this style. However, because it’s a smaller brand from Haus Alpenz, it tends to be less well known to drinkers than Campari or Aperol. This low-proof bitter is one of my favorite bottles on my bar, and I often find myself reaching for it before Campari for certain drinks.

Unlike Campari or Aperol, Cappelletti is not based in grain alcohol. Rather, it is based in a blend of Pinot Bianca, Garganega, and Trebbiano wines. Because of this, it has a much richer, smoother texture than the two previous bitters. You can taste wine notes when drinking this liqueur, making it an ideal pairing for more delicate cocktails that still want an extra boost of that traditional red Italian bitter taste. This bottle is still perfect for a spritz, lending a rounded finish that you don’t get from the more traditional Aperol.

ABV: 17%

Tasting Notes: soft red fruit, fruity, sweet tones in the back, less astringent finish

Cocktails to Try: Tequila Negronis, Cappelletti & Grapefruit, Cappelletti Tom Collins

Cocktail Hacks

A Case for Making Soda Based Syrups  

Sugar is the backbone of any great cocktail. A sugar syrup can transform a drink from tasting thin and dry into a cocktail thick with velvety texture. While many simple syrups call for a base of water, I love using flavored sodas as the base of my syrups because they can add quick, clean flavor that may not translate as well as an infused syrup. 

Think about all the soda out there these days. From classics like Cock ‘n Bull Ginger Beer and Ting Grapefruit Soda to new small batch sodas such as Fever Tree’s Sparkling Grapefruit , there seems to be a carbonated version of just about any flavor you can dream up. This is why making syrups out of soda not only creates a jazzed up texture, but it also does a phenomenal job of making otherwise hard to find flavors extremely accessible.

Elderflower Soda Syrup made from Fentimans Sparkling Eldeflower

Think of the last time you tried to find fresh lavender. When was the last time you tried to find fresh lavender? Mine was about a week ago, and let me tell you, it was harder than I thought. It isn’t; an ingredient that you can just run into the closest grocery store to grab, and while I love the local pharmacy that sells it, they have store hours that don’t always work for my schedule, especially when I’m hit with a stroke of cocktail inspiration at 9pm on a Saturday, long after they’ve closed for the weekend. My local grocery store, however, carries a commercially made “small batch” lavender soda that has gorgeous flavor and is almost always in stock.

Flavored sodas are also significantly more forgiving than the fresh version of their main ingredient. Lavender, for example, can quickly turn from being a fresh, lovely floral flavor to tasting almost exactly like soap if you aren’t careful. I’ve ruined more than one batch of lavender syrup by infusing it too long or heating it too high over the stove. Elderflower is another popular flavor that can be tricky to get right when using the real blossoms—but this elderflower soda syrup yields consistent results in a much shorter amount of time. Because there is already sugar in the soda, you also don’t have to add as much granulated sugar in these syrups as a traditional version.

No matter what flavor you’re excited about, you can probably find a flavored soda to substitute into a simple syrup to add to your favorite cocktails!

Cocktail Hacks

Elderflower Soda Syrup

1 cup Elderflower Gently Sparkling Soda

3/4 cup Granulated Sugar

  1. Heat soda over medium heat until simmering.
  2. Whisk sugar into soda until it has dissolved, about 30 seconds.
  3. Simmer for 1-2 minutes until it has thickened slightly. Allow the syrup to cool completely at room temperature before bottling and storing in the refrigerator for up to two weeks.
Cocktail Hacks Wine Geeks

Repurposing Wine: Three Easy Ways to Recycle That Bottle in the Fridge

It’s five months into quarantine, and wine is officially Employee of the Month in my house. A glass of lush Etna Rosso to celebrate my deadline on Friday afternoon; a taste of Lambrusco on Sunday morning with my grits and asparagus benedict; a bottle of crisp Sauvignon Blanc, opened on Wednesday night while waiting on take out  cooking dinner. It’s all delicious. Breathtaking. Superb examples of the strides modern winemakers have made with bottles listed under $20.

The problem is that while I love to taste things, I’m not a huge drinker. I love the taste of wine and spirits, but I’m no longer in the practice of guzzling a bottle of wine in one sitting (you’re welcome, mom) which means that there tends to be at least one bottle of wine dying in my refrigerator door every week. Which, in this economy of restaurant uncertainty and virtually no federal aid…fucking sucks. I hate feeling like I’ve wasted money, especially on a luxury like good wine. But don’t worry—all hope is not lost! When life gives you oxidized wine, you can make plenty of beautiful, boozy odds and ends.

Read below for three of my favorite ways to repurpose wine that you’ve neglected to keep money in your pocket and Dionysus off your back!


Okay, yes, you probably knew that this was coming. That’s fair. You’re a smart one, and I can’t pull a fast one over on you that easily. But one thing I’ve learned from working in bars so long is that sangria is a surprisingly intimidating project for a good portion of home bartenders, and I’m here to tell you: don’t be scared. Making sangria is a lot like making a spritz cocktail or kitchen sink omelette. Throw whatever fruit you have on hand in a pitcher, add some sugar and a touch of spirit, and you’ll have a sangria worth bragging about in no time.

The trick to making a great sangria is to be careful with the sugar. It can often turn into something way too sweet if you try to use sugar to cover the flavor of your wine. Remember that wine and fruit have their own residual sugar that will come into play, so you don’t need to add a cup of simple syrup to make a great sangria. Another pro-tip: choose a quality mixer if you’re going to be topping it off with some bubbles. My general rule of thumb is that if I wouldn’t drink it on its own, I won’t use it to top my punch.

I pack my sangrias with fruit, and while I like to keep certain fruits reserved for certain wines (strawberries and blueberries with red; apples and kiwi with white; peaches and grapes with rosé) remember there are no rules! No matter what fruit you have on hand, just be sure to combine it with some form of citrus, such as lemon or orange, to bring out the best in your wine. You’ll also want to store your punch in the refrigerator both while you infuse it, and while you wait to enjoy it, so clear out the fruit shelf and make some room!

Strawberry Mint Sangria

2 cups red wine, preferably a lush red like Rioja or Barbara

1/4 cup rouge vermouth

1 cup strawberries, cubed

2 lemons, cut into wheels

1 orange, cut into wheels

1/2 cup simple sugar syrup (1:1)

1/4 cup fresh orange juice

2 oz brandy or light rum

Mint, for garnishing

  1. In a large container, combine strawberries, citrus wheels, and sugar syrup. Using a muddler, lightly crush fruit into the sugar, careful not to break the fruit all the way down.
  2. Add wine, vermouth, orange juice, and brandy/rum to the container. Attach a lid and give the whole thing a shake.
  3. Store in the refrigerator for 12-24 hours.
  4. Pour roughly 5 oz punch into a win glass packed with ice. Spoon strawberries and citrus wheels into the glass with wine.
  5. Top with sparkling water or wine. Gently stir to combine. In one hand, gently slap a handful of mint leaves and carefully roll the leaves between your palms. (This allows the fragrant oils in the mint to release without tearing the leaves, which can create a bitter, swampy flavor.)
  6. Enjoy! Best paired with pop hits from the 90s while cleaning your apartment.


Adding tonic water to a spirit or liqueur is one of my favorite ways to spruce up a drink and turn it into something crushable. Tonic contains quinine, a bittersweet mixer that is most famous for doing the heavy lifting in the famous G&T. Tonic water has a more complex flavor than soda water, and it can provide the sugar and bitter elements to make a glass of so-so red wine a little more cocktail-esque.

Stirring some rich Demerara sugar syrup into the wine before adding tonic water gives this drink a little more viscosity, which can be lacking due to the strong bitter aftertaste of tonic. As always when enjoying long style drinks, the quality of your tonic water can make or break this drink. Tonic water has been getting a bit of a makeover in recent years, so there are plenty of varieties and brands to choose from like elderflower, bitter lemon, Mediterranean and Indian tonics, and more!

Wine & Tonic

While I do prefer this drink with red wine, it’s also excellent with white and rosé! I also like to “match” my vermouth to my wine: rouge with red wine, dry or blanc with white wine, and lillet or rosa vermouth with rosé.

1 1/2 oz wine

1/2 oz vermouth

1/4 oz rich sugar syrup (2:1)

Tonic Water

Orange Peel

1. Combine wine, vermouth, and sugar syrup in a rocks glass with ice. Stir well to combine sugar with wine.

2. Pour desired amount of tonic water over wine mixture. Stir again to combine all ingredients together.

3. Cut off a long strip of orange about 1 inch in width. Using your forefingers and thumbs, gently pinch the peel, skin-side facing the surface of the drink, to release citrus oils over the drink. Gently rub the peel over the lip of the glass and twist over the side of the glass.

4. Enjoy! Drink this while listening to Angela Davis recordings (and taking notes).


My favorite part of a Manhattan or Last Word is often not the gentle tang of vermouth or herbaceous chartreuse aftertaste, it’s the cherry at the bottom of the glass once the last drop has gone down. Cocktail cherries are delicious, but they can be expensive, and I’m not usually willing to pay $15-20 a jar for cherries that I will normally end up stressing eating without a cocktail to go with them. However, when cherries are in season, I like to can large batches of red wine-bourbon cherries to give as gifts in the chill of whiskey cocktail season. Not only does this make for a pretty cost-effective bulk Christmas gift, but it also serves as a perfect use for that red wine forgotten in the bottom of the bar cart.

Red Wine Bourbon Cherries

2 cups red wine

1 1/2 cups granulated sugar

1/4 cup whiskey

1 orange, zested

1 lemon, zested

2 cinnamon sticks

4 cups cherries, pitted or whole

  1. Sterilize your desired size of mason jars and tops.
  2. Heat wine over medium-high heat until it begins to lightly boil. reduce heat to medium-low and add sugar. Stir until sugar has completely dissolved.
  3. Add orange and lemon zest to syrup and allow to reduce slightly, simmering for about 2-3 minutes. remove from heat.
  4. Pack cherries into a jar. Pour about 1/8 cup of whiskey over cherries. Add cinnamon sticks. Pour hot syrup into the jars, reserving about 1/2 inch of space between he liquid and the lid.
  5. Tighten lids over your jars and place in the canning pot with water. Slowly bring the water to boil and process the cherries for about 25 minutes.
  6. Allow the jars to fully cool. Test lids for vacuum seal. Store all cherries in a cool dark space. If any lids don’t seal, store in refrigerator ands within 10-14 days.

I hope you enjoyed these repurposed red wine recipes! have a friend who is constantly pouring wine down the drain? Be a good friend and forward this page to your favorite forgetful cocktail nerds!