Sai Campari? The Italian aperitif (that is, a drink served before a meal to stimulate the appetite) was created in 1860 by Gaspare Campari, who crafted the beverage using a secret recipe of herbs, aromatic plants, and fruit infused in alcohol and water. Today, the distinctive red bottle is a staple at Italian dinner tables and is becoming an increasingly familiar sight in bars -- probably because it makes for a damn good cocktail ingredient.
"It opens your drinks in so many ways," says Tony Tuttle, bar manager at Scottsdale Resort and Conference Center. "The bitterness, the sweetness, the orange, the lemon -- it works really well in cocktails."
Earlier this month, Campari announced the first-ever "Best Aperitivo" Cocktail Competition -- a national contest held in partnership with the U.S. Bartenders' Guild to find the best drinks made with the Italian aperitif. Regional mix-offs would be held across the U.S. from March 15 to April 15, with finalists earning a trip to New York City to compete at the final competition during the Manhattan Cocktail Classic in May.
Casablanca Lounge played host Sunday to the bartenders competing for the chance to represent Arizona. Judging was intense -- former GQ bartender of the year Jason Asher sat directly across from the tenders to judge bartenders' technique in measuring, pouring, and handling bottles, glasses and themselves. Working within a time limit, bartenders crafted three identical cocktails, which were then brought to a separate room where judges rated them appearance, aroma and flavor.
Top honors went to Tuttle, who only recently began refocusing on serving drinks after spending time in a managerial position.
"I missed the bar so much that I started getting into learning more cocktails and classic recipes," Tuttle says. "I've been reading a lot of books, making my own tinctures."
The Campari competition was just Tuttle's third ever, though he's familiar with the winner's circle, having placed in the top five in a competition hosted by Woodford Reserve bourbon in November.
Tuttle says he made his drink, the Agave Gusto, to capture the essence of aperitif.
"Gusto in Italian is depth, or variety," Tuttle says. "So mine was a Campari-based cocktail that uses Espolon silver tequila, which lends itself to a lot of cool grapefruit, citrus flavors. Then I went to what I would kind of do if I was going to have a big meal. Lemongrass is a great way to aid digestion, so the syrup I used was lemongrass syrup. Then I sprayed a little orange oil through a flame to finish. Whenever you smell orange, it makes you feel better. It reminds you of spring."
The cocktail impressed the judges not only with its flavor but with its presentation.
"The appearance of the cocktail is outstanding," Asher says. "That's something that we really need to focus on here. It becomes very important in the larger competitions."
Tuttle now heads to New York to represent the state, and Asher says he has his work cut out for him.
"It's a whole different world over there in New York," Asher warns. "If you think it's crazy and you're dripping sweat now, multiply that by ten."
Check back tomorrow to find out how to make Tuttle's Agave Gusto.