Updated: Jan 21, 2021
Context: Created in 1860, Campari is a type of alcheremes amaro, a category defined by the bright red hues of these bitter liqueurs. Traditionally, the coloring would coming from the use of cochineal insects. As cocktail culture was on the rise in the early 20th century, Campari worked its red magic into two classic cocktails - the Americano and the Negroni - cementing its placement on backbars across the globe.
Older Campari is valued by collectors for two major reasons. Reason one: they taste different. Bottles of amaro contain some organic macerated compounds that remain volatile. As significant amounts of time pass, the contents evolve in the bottle. Secondly, although Campari swears the only recipe change happened in 2006 when it removed the carmine (cochineal) coloring in favor of a vegetarian friendly artificial dye, the difference in flavor profile has been repeatedly called out by enthusiasts. The general consensus was that the change produced a thinner spirit on the palate that was both more sweet and more bitter than the previous version. The older version offering more graceful transitions and a deeper, richer, more rounded profile.
The vintage bottle tasted is a SKYY Spirits import. It was bottled sometime between 1999-2006. The Paddington Corp. operated as importer from 1994-1998. Previous to that (1990-1994), the bottles are labeled Campari USA. After 1999 the importer was listed as SKYY Spirits, before finally becoming Campari America. The second indicator is in the laser code. The LS that begins the laser code seems to be present on all old recipe bottles from the 90s until 2006. After 2006, the ingredients list changed to include “artificially colored” and the laser codes started to begin with LN.
Campari - SKYY Imports (1999-2006) – 24%
Nose: It’s all jammy, stewed red fruits on the nose compared to brighter/artificial notes in the current.
Flavor: Plenty of mixed berries up front. The berries here are fresh as opposed to the stewed ones on the nose. Floral vanilla notes are really bright.
Palate Structure: Bitterness deepens in well integrated waves. It reaches more intense bitterness than the current, but gently eases you in (a soft reveal) rather than rather than shoving you along.
Alcohol Integration: Low heat, better integration than contemporary.
You’d Dig This If You Like:
Gourmet fruit preserves
Desserts that employ bitter elements
Score: 8 (Stash One) This photo didn’t really capture it, but the 1990s bottling is a much deeper red. The softening of the bitter notes compared to the contemporary recipe lets the bitterness be more about the effect on the structure of the palate and less on the specific flavors it’s delivering. This is a slow roller; where the current is punchy and scrappy.
Campari - 2018 – 24%
Nose: Bright with artificial citrus - sugared grapefruit. Lighter and more high-toned than the 90s.
Flavor: Simple syrup up front, grapefruit again and then a quick burst into quassia and wormwood, earwax levels of bitterness before settling into a sugar glaze. Then you take a breaths and get hit with a second, bitter finish - delivering a deep-dull-long-heavy bitter note.
Palate Structure: It’s aggressive and poorly structured, but damn if it isn’t fun. I do love a Campari and soda.
Alcohol Integration: A little rowdy for the proof neat, but holds up well in a drink.
You’d Dig This If You Like:
Score: 4 (Not Complaining) I'll happily sip the old recipe neat. This one's for mixing. But don't sleep on the vintage in a cocktail. It's a noticeable improvement.
10 - Reevaluate My Budget
9 - Stash (Two If Able)
8 - Stash One (At The Right Price)
7 - Highly Recommend It To Strangers
6 - Solid - Above Average
5 - Acceptable For The Situation
4 - Not Vocally Complaining
3 - Wish I Was Drinking Something Else
2 - Nothing Nice To Say
1 - Drain Pour