Campari toasts US cocktail’s renaissance


At the Gilroy on New York’s Upper East Side, patrons can order a Oaxaca Negroni, made with mescal; the Nutcracker, featuring rye and walnut liqueur; or they can stick with traditional gin. But constant among the bar’s Negroni cocktail offerings – which have their own section on the drinks menu – is Campari.

Whiskey is not the only Mad Men-era spirit undergoing a revival. Americans’ thirst for cocktails is boosting US sales of the bitter red aperitif that defines the classic Negroni.

The herb-infused cocktail is popping up everywhere from Manhattan’s Lincoln Ristorante, where customers can design their own mix of spirits, bitters and vermouths, to Jasper’s in San Francisco, which serves the cocktail on tap from a keg filled with Campari, gin and sweet vermouth – the original recipe.

“From a fundamental flavour standpoint, 10 years ago most cocktails were sour. The Cosmopolitan is the perfect example: strong, sweet and sour,” says Jim Meehan, bartender and co-founder of PDT, a speakeasy-style cocktail lounge in New York’s East Village.

“As the mixology and cocktail renaissance has taken hold of America, you see bartenders trying to work in other flavours like bitter, as well as herbal, such as St Germain, floral, and even smoky cocktails with mescal and Scotch.”

Mr Meehan’s signature version combines Campari with rum and sherry to make what he calls the East Indian Negroni.

The effects of this interest are being felt at Campari America, where Jean Jacques Dubau, the newly installed managing director for North America, is targeting sales of 100,000 cases of the namesake liqueur in the next few years – up from 66,000 in 2012 and 75,000 in 2013. The US’s growing taste for aperitifs and digestifs was among the drivers of Gruppo Campari’s recent purchase of a Sicilian bitters company.

Campari liqueur is growing about 12 per cent annually in the US after posting flat sales of about 50,000 cases a year well into the 2000s, says Dave Karraker, brand manager. “Its original heyday was in the 1970s, and it was dead flat for decades.”

Best-known for its eponymous aperitif, Gruppo Campari – the world’s sixth-largest spirits company – owns several big brands, including Skyy vodka, Aperol liqueur and Appleton rum. Its Wild Turkey Kentucky bourbon and Espolón tequila brands, with Campari, posted double-digit US sales rises last year, helping to propel US organic revenue growth of 6.3 per cent. That compared with a 1.7 per cent increase in Gruppo Campari’s overall organic revenue.

Campari liqueur made up only a fraction of the 208.6m cases of spirits sold in the US in 2013, says Impact Databank, but it is part of an Italian liqueurs category Nielsen data show expanding at a double-digit rate.

Bob Kunze-Concewitz, Gruppo Campari’s chief executive, cited US spirits market robustness as a reason it bought Sicily’s Fratelli Averna, which makes Italy’s second-best-selling bitter, at €103.75m this month.

“Thanks to our strong distribution network in North America, we are very well positioned to benefit from the market’s growth potential, particularly in the US, where mixologists and local consumers are showing growing interest in Italian bitters and liqueurs,” he said.

Mr Dubau says the acquisition will allow Campari America to promote its “portfolio of Italian specialities” as a range of drinks through the evening, from a pre-dinner Aperol spritz to Frangelico with dessert.

“People are using cocktails the same way they did with wine and beer, and aperitifs too,” says Derek Brown, co-owner of the Columbia Room, a Washington bar where tasting menus pair food with cocktails.

“Some things wine doesn’t go with at all – artichokes [for example]. They will really turn the flavour of the wine, but that doesn’t happen with cocktails. This week we’re doing a Cynar cocktail [with a Campari-owned artichoke liqueur] with artichoke olive pâté.”

Bartenders and industry analysts point to consumer interest in flavours. “We require variety. We are always seeking out new tastes,” says Harry Balzer, chief industry analyst at NPD Group, a consumer researcher.

Campari’s Mr Dubau says: “We used to say it’s going to be tough for some of our products because the US consumer has a sweet tooth. But the rise of Starbucks shows people like coffee, which is bitter. People eat salad like arugula, which has a bitter taste. American consumers are changing their taste profiles.”

Mr Brown also mentioned popularity of arugula, or rocket, comparing the iceberg lettuce of his youth to diverse greens now found on salad plates. “It’s . . . the foodie movement – people are so much more interested in what they eat, they see eating as an aspect of discovery or adventure,” he says. “That is translating into drinking. People are searching for something beyond that plain vodka soda.”