A different kind of bitter: cool, smoky Campari

Red dawn. Credit: Sarah Toms.

“What are you doing with a blowtorch and machete?”

My wife had just returned from work and was standing hesitantly at the front gate. It was a fine Sunday evening at the end of May and I was sitting on my steps. With me was the blowtorch and machete, some food-grade cedar planks, two cinderblocks, an old grill grate, a blade sharpener, a Mason jar, a bottle of Campari, and my neighbor, Josh, who drove to the hardware store to purchase a blowtorch the moment I texted him to ask if he had one I could borrow.

“I’m making cocktails. They’ll be ready in three weeks.”

I first learned of and tasted cedar-steeped Campari in January while enjoying a gentleman’s weekend with a dear old friend in Portland, Oregon. He had worked up a batch before my arrival and it was gone before my departure 48 hours later. We drank the stuff over ice, like deep red liquid rubies from short rocks glasses. The taste was pleasing. Full disclosure: I really like Campari, and this was still Campari, but a little mellower, and with less sweetness on the nose and palate. The finish was still bitter, but a different sort of bitter, cool and smoky.

On the eve of Negroni week I found myself thinking about the CSC1 I had tasted nearly five months before. That morning I used a wooden bat fashioned from yellow birch to hit a baseball over the left field fence, and then I spent the afternoon slow smoking a beef shoulder over hickory and cherry. My day had been structured around deriving big thrills from wooden things. It was exactly the right day to start some CSC of my own.

Step one: I texted that dear friend in Oregon: “I’m going to make that cedar Campari … how do I burn the wood?” A few moments later, via SMS, I received the following Materials & Methods.

I just kind of charred it all over and then blew it out. Now I would never, never ever discourage anyone from buying a blowtorch, but I just used a candle and it worked fine. I broke a cedar plank into small strips, held each end over a candle, let it burn until I couldn’t hold it any more, blew out the flame and then tossed it into a Mason jar. It doesn’t take much to infuse that flavor, but it does seem to get better the longer it soaks. Three weeks or so should do. You then need to strain the Campari through cheesecloth 3 or 4 times, until all the sediment is out. You can use the cedar again, just seal it in the Mason jar until you’re ready to reload. Def a rustic treat. Not 1/2 bad with vodka either. Check out “hunters vest” from the Woodsman Tavern. That’s where I got the idea2.

Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might.

I read exactly those words, and my brain reduced and rendered this suggestion down into this plan: sharpen my 15″ Gerber and procure a propane torch. After receiving my request by text, Josh set off to complete the latter task as I worked on the former. After a few minutes honing the blade I imagined an ideal single molecule steel edge. The tool turned out to be perfect for the job, splitting the plank lengthwise into 1 x 1 cm sticks of fragrant cedar, like a hot machete through a stick of butter standing on end. Enough pride welled within that I decide to transmit this photo to Portland.

On my phone a reply appeared in two separate bubbles: [Nice tool] [Damn, jealy]. A few cuts later Josh arrived with the blowtorch and we were immediately ready to light it up. We paid little attention to the instructions with embedded cautionary diagrams, and I recalled a phrase Josh had coined some years before on the 4th of July: freedom, not safety3.

About to apply spark to flowing gas, I realized the cedar strips were approximately two times too long to fit into the 16 oz canning jar. As I broke each one in half with my bare hands, Josh ribbed playfully, “For your next feat of strength, are you gonna rip a phone book in half, Jeff, or bend nails?” I grinned; the cedar snapping was quite satisfying and it’s an activity I can recommend without reservation.

How great a matter a little fire kindleth.

We first attempted to scorch the wood strips while they lay on the walkway, but apparently blowtorches do not work upside down. So we placed the cedar on the small circular grate from a Weber Smokey Joe, suspended it across two cinderblocks and attacked from below and from the side. I was shooting for blackened-but-not-too-crispy; I admit I am not well-practiced in the art of charring wood for aging of spirits and welcome constructive advice—including in the comments below. I’ll refrain from describing this in too much detail, so as not to glorify playing with fire. Suffice it to say this was fun, and it was glorious.

For now we see through a glass, darkly.

We packed the jar tight with an array of charred cedar columns and filled it to the brim with Campari, stowed it away in the dark corner of a cabinet and tried to forget about it.

Twenty-one days later I decanted the liquor and strained it several times using a French press (cafetiere, Britisher friends) and filter paper. Dark red visuals, as I remembered. But there was less of it than I expected; the wood had absorbed a third or more of the ruby juice. Lesson learned: next time use a bigger jar and more of everything.

Before tasting the product I refilled the jar and stowed it away again. The aroma was more pungent than I had recalled, but the familiar flavors and multi-faceted finish were present. About to pour more and enjoy a drink, I was quite suddenly overcome by a likely-rational fear that this potion, with all its red dyes and wood phenols and partially combusted hydrocarbons, might be incredibly toxic. I messaged Portland with my concerns. He sent back to me: “Yeah, careful with that, you might live forever,” all the encouragement I needed. Freedom, not safety.

It will be fair weather: for the sky is red.

The next afternoon—hot following heavy morning rain—I cut the grass in the dense air and then mixed a small, simple Negroni with one part CSC, one part Cinzano sweet vermouth, and one part Smooth Ambler Greenbrier small batch gin (which deserves its own write-up). For a pairing I prepared a poor man’s caprese: a salad of ripe tomato, string cheese (both pulled and sliced, for textural variety), good olive oil, a pinch of sea salt, and a healthy grind of black pepper.

A man hath no better thing under the sun, than to eat, and to drink, and to be merry.

The cheap, processed “mozzarella” was all for texture and nothing for flavor; it didn’t need any flavor, here came my Negroni. The smoky woodiness of the CSC and the botanicals of a good gin were balanced against the sweetness of the fortified wine. All of this went quite well with the sweet and acidic tomato, which was a very fine specimen itself.

This happened in a suburb between Baltimore and Washington, DC, and I drank my Negroni and ate my salad on the first day of summer, 2015. Def a rustic treat.

Jeff Lewandowski (Washington, DC, July 2015)

jeff-lewandowski-bylineJeff is a publishing professional by day. By moonlight he does baseball geek stuff and serves as US/Americas editor for Alderman Lushington. On Sunday mornings he wears a baseball player costume and seeks glory on the diamond. Jeff was born and raised in Massachusetts, but currently enjoys drink, drinkers and drinking near his home, about halfway between Baltimore and Washington, DC, and wherever else his travels take him.


1. I do declare, cedar-steeped Campari deserves its own acronym.

2. Jordan Michelman 2011 Portland Cocktails: How to Make The Woodsman Tavern’s Hunting Vest (Serious Eats)

3. I do not necessarily condone this cavalier attitude, but in some way it does tickle my funny bone. Let it also be noted that Freedom, Not Safety became an anthem which is sometimes played on stringed instruments on holiday weekend in America, in some parts, unknown.