Deconstructing Campari

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[6/7/2015 This post just recently got a lot of traffic from a discussion at Reddit. The initial concern was simply the sugar content of Campari for a calorie counter, but the discussion quickly turned to the lack of consensus on the sensory values of Campari. Some people were not aware that Campari was sweet while others were sure of it. A few astute people thought that if Campari did not have sugar to suppress the bitterness it would be so bitter it would not be palatable. The talk eventually gravitated to measuring the sugar content. This post was one of my very first experiments with sugar measurement and since then I’ve advanced a lot. Now I would measure the density of the Campari, figure out ethanol’s influence on that density and then find the sugar content of that unobscured density in g/L instead of brix. I also estimate a 30g/L margin of error.]

I thought I knew a lot about all things alcoholic but I keep finding lots of holes in my knowledge. One to clear up is whether amaros like Campari are infused then re-distilled or not. Do they simply infuse and filter then color? Sounds more practical. Distilling has huge energy costs and sometimes it seems to over engineer the results. And, are any bitter principles volatile enough to come through in a distillate? Do the results either way have any implications for an understanding of absinthe containing wormwood which is the most bitter substance I’ve ever come across?

For the experiment I took 500ml of Campari and added 500ml of water then distilled out 500ml. Using a nice amount of reflux, Campari’s small amount of alcohol came out quickly then I was mainly distilling water to make up the volume.

Now I have two 500ml volumes. One is clear, has the 24% alcohol, and whatever aromatic principles came through. It smells just like Campari but is barely bitter or maybe just has the aroma that my brain associates with bitter things. Now the second volume is slightly darker red than the Campari (maybe because I caramelized the sugars?) and does not smell Campari-esque at all. It actually smells slightly like juniper but who knows if that is from residues in my still or from the containers I’m reusing. The second volume definitely has a lot of bitter to it but less than Campari. (or maybe not when I sit down and drink the real stuff.)

So the results here are really similar to my distilling of a quinine tincture. No bitter in the distillate. Now I have to try it with wormwood and see how the results come out. If the results are not bitter, Absinthes could have had lots of wormwood in them. My previous understanding was that you could never put so much wormwood in because no one would be able to palate the stuff.

One more thing that I can derive from the Campari experiment is how much sugar is in the product. Now that I have a volume with no alcohol I can use either a refractometer or more accurately a hydrometer to gauge how much sugar they add. (I just ordered some specialized hydrometers… can’t wait to try them out!)


So I finally tried out my specialized hydrometers. Campari lays just between the end of one and beginning of another so my very good estimate is there is 22 brix to campari. Now I could take this farther and see how much the alcohol obscures the measure of the Campari’s sugar content using the same hydrometer on the real stuff.

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12 thoughts on “Deconstructing Campari

  1. No, that is exactly the point of distilling Absinthe.

    The bitter components of Wormwood, primarily Absinthin, do not come across until very late in the distillation of Absinthe. By that time, the distillate is well into the tails and tasting pretty bad as it is.

    You could make an Absinthe with a ton of Wormwood and if you cut it early enough it would not be bitter, though it would contain much of the aromatic perfume of the herb.

  2. nice point erik and i have some wormwood to try distilling. but i kept my campari distillation going far beyond the tails until i was probably distilling pure water and i got very little that you would call bitter… so now i guess i have to try it with wormwood and see exactly what happens… i really wish i had more of a tasting panel…

  3. There’s probably a pretty big difference in relative bitterness between wormwood steeped in high proof Grain Neutral Spirits and Campari. Not to mention the volume and solvent properties.

    Campari is already drinkable.

    I haven’t ever tried tasting it myself, but I believe Wormwood in GNS is pretty vile.

  4. relative bitter aside, what goes through the still? for the next expirement i’ll make an infusion near fatally bitter with wormwood and distill it then report on what happens… prediction?

  5. Please do not make the common mistake of thinking that sugar is the only ingredient contributing to the overall Brix. The Brix number measures all disolved solids in a liquid, and there are many types of solids undetectable by the eye that exist in liquids. Tap water, white rum , neutral grain spirits, and anything with color pigments will have a brix measurement.

  6. I see this is an old post but I’m wondering if anyone has an idea about what kinds of sugars are being measured. Any idea if sucrose or fructose or other sugars account for the 22 Brix factor of Campari? Anyway, great post – nice work.

  7. hi seth, i’m not sure what sugars are in campari, but i’m pretty sure that my measurements are as sucrose. amerine’s annotated bibliography of vermouth has some papers that explain how sucrose goes into products like vermouth but is eventually inverted over time into glucose and fructose. i think the acidity of the wine base is responsible so i’m not sure if campari is high enough in acid to invert its own sugars.

    the post is old and my measuring technique has been simplified since then as well as detailed in other posts.

    is your interest for dietary reasons? a huge amount of people search for liqueur sugar contents and i’ve never figured out why.

    cheers! -stephen

  8. Campari has 250 grams of sugar per liter in it which is immense – most sodas have 100 and even those are cloying.

    Anyway, I found this post through Google and I find it very interesting! I am interested in making some sort of ‘deconstructed Negroni’ cocktail by distilling the alcohol out of Campari, dehydrating the remaining syrup and then infusing the syrup with high-ABV gin and blending in the Campari distillate and some Torino vermouth. I’m just struggling a little with the math, ratios aren’t easy after changing things around that much. :p

    I am curious, is there a way to remove the sugar from the remnant of Campari after distilling without losing any of the flavoring? I want to reduce the sugar content of it.

  9. an interesting project.

    removing the sugar would be beyond my knowledge. all i can think of is fermenting that sugar and then distilling off the alcohol. redissolving the bitter principles, the centrifuging of the yeasts… by that time the project is completely nuts.

    in a similar vein. i wanted to give some liqueurs “reconstructive surgery”. such as distill off the the alcohol and aroma of green chartreuse then see if i can trade the sugar quotient for an exotic aromatic one like jaggery. i’m assuming that everything chartreuse about green chartreuse lies in the volatile aroma, but that would be learned in the process.

    give some updates on the progress. cheers! -stephen

  10. I just found your website while searching for ways to make homemade Campari without sugar. I’m obsessed with the bitterness and overall flavor of Campari and have been for years since living in Italy but now living in the Boston area and also only having access to the lower alcohol Campari which tastes even sweeter I wanted to re-create one with less sugar… Or find an alternative already on the market that tastes the same but has less than 12 g sugar per 1.5 ounces. What I do now is create cocktails using either a favorite silver tequila or vodka with only a .5 ounces of Compari and bitters along with additional lemon and lime over ice. I even add a shot of raw apple cider vinegar and medicinal cayenne extract because we truly like the flavor and it’s so much better for our body . Have you discovered any other ways or any alternatives to Campari without the sugar content?

  11. No matter the level of reflux in your still, you would be mistaken to believe there is no residual alcohol left in your still pot after your distillation.

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