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.
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.
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.
Tasting Notes: soft red fruit, fruity, sweet tones in the back, less astringent finish
Cocktails to Try: Tequila Negronis, Cappelletti & Grapefruit, Cappelletti Tom Collins