Your guide to Northern Italy’s popular apértifs.

By Tim Nelson
August 06, 2019
baibaz via Getty Images and bhofack2 via Getty Images

It’s been said that 2018 was the summer of the aperol spritz, and the Instagrammable orange cocktail certainly hasn’t gone anywhere since. But that doesn’t mean it’s the only colorful Italian bitter-based on the block: thanks to the classic and classy Negroni, not to mention a delightful spritz of its own, Campari deserves a place on any reputable bar cart as well. But what’s the difference between these two similar-seeming cocktail ingredients? Well, I’m glad you asked. 

Before we go any further, it’s important to note the similarities between the two. For starters, Campari and Aperol are both apértifs, which means they’re traditionally served to induce one’s appetite before a meal. More importantly, they’re both bitters. On a fundamental level, this means they’re types of alcohol infused with aromatic herbs, fruits, or even barks and roots that lend flavor when paired with spirits. As opposed to those little droppers of cocktail bitters you might see a bartender use to make an Old Fashioned, Campari and Aperol are potable bitters, which means you can (and even should) try them straight up. Other examples of potable bitters include Fernet Branca and Cynar, which you might recognize from the artichoke on its label. 

Watch: How to Make a Classic Gin Martini

As with some other potable bitters, both Aperol and Campari can trace their roots (I mean herbs) back to Northern Italy. Gaspare Campari of Novara, Italy, was first credited for developing the bitters that bear his name in 1860. After inheriting a liqueur company from their father in 1912, Luigi and Silvio Barbieri were credited with creating Aperol in Padua, Italy, in 1919. Despite their separate origin stories, both Campari and Aperol are currently manufactured and sold by the Campari Group.  

Get the recipe: Aperol Spritz Cake

Now, on to the differences. Visually, Aperol features the red-orange glow of a summer sunset for reasons that seem to be shrouded in secrecy. Campari’s distinct shade of red has kind of a gross origin story, as it was traditionally derived from the carmine dye produced from ground-up cochineal insects (thankfully, they stopped putting bugs in their liqueur back in 2006). 

Get the recipe: Grapefruit-Campari Bars with Shortbread Crust

Just as the colors differ somewhat, there’s a difference in the proprietary infusion of herbs and fruits that gives each its distinctive flavor. Campari features a mix of alcohol, sugar syrup, distilled water, citrus, rhubarb, and a closely guarded mix of herbs. That concoction tends make it the more bitter beverage of the two, though it certainly features fruity notes. Comparatively, Aperol features a lighter orange flavor, infused with herbs like rhubarb, gentian root, and other ingredients for what some describe as a sweet, orange taste accompanied by subtle bitter notes.

Owing to their disparate ingredients and preparations, the two apértifs feature differing levels of alcohol. Aperol is the lighter of the two, clocking in at 11% alcohol by volume (though, in Germany, the law requires it be sold at 15%), while Campari clocks in at somewhere between 20.5% and 28% depending on where in the world you’re drinking. In this case, the redder the northern Italian apértif, the stronger it is. 

Now, for the most important part: how should you use them? Obviously, the signature Aperol spritz, which features three parts Prosecco, two parts Aperol and a splash of soda water is the way to go with that orange cocktail. Campari is most often enjoyed in a Negroni, where it’s featured alongside equal measures of gin and sweet vermouth. But because it’s boozier, it features in other cocktails like the bourbon-based Boulevardier or paired with red vermouth to make an Americano. 

So, yes, Campari and Aperol have quite a bit in common. But they’re far from interchangeable. You can’t make a proper negroni with Aperol, and a Campari spritz probably wouldn’t generate the same level of Instagram engagement. Honestly, the only way to know for sure whether you like Aperol or Campari better is to buy both, and that sounds like a pretty good excuse to make some cocktails. 

Read more: Cool Classic Cocktails

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