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Aaron N. Tubbs

Dragon chaser.

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Carpano Antica Formula

I first read about Carpano Antica Formula in Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails, the subject of my blog working through each of that book’s recipes. Carpano proves that Italian vermouths are capable of transcendence. It is incredibly complex. It has impeccable balance and versatility. Poured over some ice, it makes a fantastic drink all by itself! It is well worth the $25-40 it’ll cost for a hand-blown bottle holding a liter of liquid magic. Go buy some. I’ll wait.

Combine Carpano, rye, and some bitters and we have the greatest Manhattan on Earth. It can make cocktail lovers out of the unbelievers. It’s that magical. Carpano is the go-to for “this cocktail is missing something.”

The Negroni

I thought the only downside of my love affair with Carpano was price (don’t get me wrong, the cost differential is a pretty big downside).

There was, however, another problem.

Made with an everyday bottle of sweet vermouth, a Negroni isn’t a bad drink. Equal parts Campari, Italian Vermouth, and gin yields a bitter and bracing beverage, capable of whetting one’s appetite and exciting the palate.

So, I have a great cocktail made with vermouth in the Negroni. I have a great vermouth in Carpano. A match made in heaven? To a degree, it was. It was clear form the start I was tasting something capable of incredible depth, complexity, and intrigue. The Negroni could be something far greater than an apertif to knock back before the meal.

And yet, it was not quite right. The balance was off. There were hints of greatness clouded by a failure in execution. Equal ratios of gin, Campari, and Carpano tasted downright wrong. I tried different gins. Jenever, Old Tom, Plymouth, London Dry, American gins … none of them worked. I tried other sweet vermouths, checking my work. Even Punt e Mes couldn’t rescue the drink. I tried ratio mashing, much to my chagrin1. No joy.

By process of elimination, the problem became clear: the weakness was Campari itself. Bother. I was lost. How could I replace an ingredient that practically defined the cocktail? That it was clearly the weak link made things no easier. I fumbled around ignorantly with a few things (Cynar, Averna, Aperol, Meletti, CioCiaro, Amaro Nonino) but couldn’t find a silver bullet.

The Saving Throw: Gran Classico Bitter

So, I did the thing that I should have done in the first place. I searched the Internet. That quickly lead me to Michael Lazar’s blog, Stirred, Not Shaken. In specific, it lead me to his post Negroni + Amaro = Negromaro:

There is going to be a tendency for people in the cocktail business who stress the importance of natural flavors and traditional (non-industrial) processes to simply embrace Gran Classico (which contains no added colorants) as a de-facto replacement for Campari (a product made on a much vaster scale).

Sign me up, I’m sold! Gran Classico is available in Connecticut (a huge bonus for me), though you may have to request it be ordered from the distributor. I ordered a bottle (actually, six 200 mL bottles, but that’s another story) from Cellar XV, and haven’t looked back.

Bottles of Campari and Gran Classico

The back of the Gran Classico Bitter bottle has a hell of an introduction:

Gran Classic Bitter is based on the original Italian Bitter of Turin recipe dating from 1864. This classic apertif is an infusion of numerous herbs and roots including wormwood, gentian, bitter orange peel, rhubarb, and other aromatic plants. Complex, refreshingly bitter-sweet with a finish that lingers like the last sentence of a cherished novel.

Compare Ccampari, with flavor text taken from their website:

Campari is the result of the infusion of herbs, aromatic plants and fruit in alcohol and water; these last two being the recipe’s only known ingredients.

Well, we also know there’s artificial coloring, too, since the bottle says so. Water, alcohol, artificial coloring, and some other stuff we don’t know. I digress.

Over time, appreciation and respect has grown for this historic and unique brand, which is now recognised and appreciated worldwide.

So it’s an acquired taste?

In continuous evolution, an image of fashion, international, and constantly cutting-edge, with a style that defines and precedes trends and fashions. Campari persistently follows sophisticated atmospheres that are stylish and emotional.

Trend setting but trend following. I think that’s what it says.

There’s a lot of other flavor text, largely talking about the brand’s dominance, prevalence, and massive quantity of production. In reality I believe the best argument for Campari is “because it’s Campari.”

The two spirits look nothing alike.

Comparing these liquors does not require a lot of careful attention to subtleties. Both have alcohol (Gran Classico Bitter is 28%, versus Campari’s 24%), bitterness, sweetness, and some herbal flavor. Campari is a one-note ordeal, with syrupy medicinal bitterness. It smells like it tastes, and that taste is one-dimensional. I’m not quite sure what that aroma and flavor is, though the closest I have is “bitter cough syrup.” Gran Classico has a relatively mild aroma, but it’s a wholly different creature on the palate. There’s a smooth sweetness up front, followed by a growing bitterness, with a finish that is long and multifaceted. The liquor has excellent balance, complexity, and richness. Despite hitting a similar “profile” as the Campari, there’s virtually nothing in common between the two.

Made up into Negronis.

Used in a Negroni, the contrast is also pronounced. With the Campari, there’s a grassy sweet bitterness, “like eating orange pith.” With the Gran Classico Bitter, the balance and complexity really shines. The final product is not as bitter as the Campari version. It’s a bit sweeter and smoother. It’s a lot richer. The complexity is worlds beyond the original. The drink is contemplative and full of intrigue, and yet it doesn’t abandon its genetic similarity. This is still a Negroni, albeit the best one possible. It mixes especially well with a flamed orange peel. The only real downside I can find is that it’s no longer a drink that’s a lovely shade of red, and it joins the legion of ugly brown cocktails. I guess some artificial red coloring could be added to deal with this, but that doesn’t seem sporting, despite its authenticity!

a disaster. It is via this method, after all, that the Martini evolved to being a mechanism for chilling gin rather than a cocktail.

  1. Messing with ratios for cocktails after the fact is a recipe for