When I visited Jamaica to tour its famous rum distilleries, I wasn’t expecting to see the word “Campari” so prominently on a roadside community bar, which had also been painted crimson red. Against the green forest that surrounded the space, the branding stood out like a sore thumb. Then I saw another bright red bar, and another.
By the time we drove past the fifth Campari-stamped roadside bar, I’d seen nearly as many endorsing the aperitif as those that were painted with Wray & Nephew’s distinctive yellow and green branding. But while the overproof rum has been a staple of Jamaican drinking for more than a century, the polarizing bittersweet Campari has only recently nudged its way into local cocktail culture.
“There was a time when Campari was gathering dust on the backbar,” says Debbian Spence-Minott, CEO at Jamaica’s Academy of Bartending, Spirits & Wines, and former marketing manager at J. Wray and Nephew.
Then, in 2012, Gruppo Campari acquired the controlling stake in Lascelles deMercado & Co., the Jamaican parent company of popular rum brands such as Wray & Nephew, Appleton Estate and Coruba. The move made sense: The Italian bitter had already established itself just over 1,000 miles southeast of Jamaica in nearby St. Lucia, where per-capita consumption of Campari is the highest in the world. But at the time of acquisition, Jamaica had little love for Italian bittersweet liqueurs, as most of the country’s traditional cocktails, from rum punch to Wray & Ting to the Dirty Banana (rum, banana and coffee liqueurs and cream), centered rum or rum cream.
“I never had Campari before the merger,” Spence-Minott admits. “People always told me that it was bitter, and that I’d either love it or hate it; so I decided that I’d probably hate it, and I never tried it.”
It wasn’t until she visited the Campari Academy in Milan that Spence-Minott learned to finally appreciate the liqueur. There, she grew more acquainted with its heritage and flavor profile.
Recognizing the popularity of Wray & Ting, Campari called on the ubiquitous grapefruit soda, promoting Campari Grapefruit (commonly known as Campari Ting) to the local market. The brand rolled out a marketing campaign that focused on community bars around the country, introducing local bartenders to the signature serve.
“Once the promotion started, we were running out of Campari stock in Jamaica,” says Spence-Minott, who was part of the campaign in its early years. The success of the promotion caused supply issues that lasted for almost two years after the initial campaign. It was the first time in the country’s history that demand for the liqueur outstripped its supply, and the approachable Campari Ting played a major role in the spirit’s trendiness.
Riaz Phillips, author of Jamaican cookbook West Winds, credits Campari’s subtle sweetness for its success in Jamaica, but he adds that popular culture, namely Jamaican music, further propelled Campari Ting and other bittersweet cocktails into fashion. “Music is the main driver of social culture in Jamaica,” says Phillips, “and Campari has been seen in music videos, which has influenced younger drinkers at small bars and raves to order bottles of Campari for their tables.” Echoing the sentiment, Arron Styles, bar supervisor at GoldenEye resort in Jamaica, says he’s noticed how popular the drink is at dance parties. For partygoers looking for light, bright drinks, Campari Ting is an easy choice over heavier rum-based cocktails.
Still, it was only a matter of time before the bitter would become acquainted with Jamaica’s favorite spirit. Spence-Minott says that “Rumpari”—which marries unaged overproof rum with Campari and Ting—has begun to take off. According to her, the three-part cocktail has nearly usurped Campari Ting as one of Jamaica’s most popular drinks.
On my trip, after a long day of visiting rum distilleries and driving around Jamaica’s picturesque parishes, the drink I craved most wasn’t a rum cocktail. Back at my hotel, I swiftly made my way to the bar just after sunset and placed my order for the citrusy highball. Tasting the Campari Ting made clear why the cocktail so quickly rose to prominence: It’s refreshing and balanced, and the grapefruit soda perfectly echoes the bitter aperitif’s orange notes.
Campari Ting is just the tip of the iceberg for the island’s burgeoning use of foreign ingredients. “We [Jamaicans] have been experimenting with mixing for a long time,” says Spence-Minott. But the growing influence of products from around the world, mixed with local bartender innovation, means even more creative cocktails are on the horizon. “This education will continue, and will only get better with time.”