Innovation is a hallmark of mixologist Hiroyasu Kayama’s work at Tokyo’s acclaimed Bar Ben Fiddich. Considered one of the world’s best bars, a near-impossible reservation grants access to an intimate parlor room in one of Shinjuku’s countless commercial buildings. When I sat down before Kayama last month, he was well-prepared for my arrival, and to tell the story behind his “Fresh Campari”, a seven-year old viral curiosity that requires more than a dozen ingredients including angelica and calamus roots, licorice, cinnamon, grapefruit juice, and vodka.

It’s the longest trip I had undertaken to sample a new spin on the popular amaro, but not the most arduous. During my ongoing reporting on the war in Ukraine, I experienced firsthand how replacing Campari products behind the bar, with alternative brands and original formulas, had become an act of wartime resistance in protest of Campari Group’s continued operations in Russia. While Kayama’s Fresh Campari recipe has been no cause for alarm at Campari Group, it has set a precedent for what’s possible when push comes to shove.

A Fresh Take

Kayama is a historian as much as an innovator, and while working on my drink, he pulled out a dusty tome from the bookcase behind him: an 1899 second edition of J. Fritsch’s “Nouveau Traite de la Fabrication des Liqueurs.” He flipped it open to the recipe for Alkermes de Florence, explaining how this precursor to Campari dates back to the Medici family while simultaneously pouring me samples from some of his favorite variations. Among them was Florentine monastery-cum-apothecary Santa Maria Novella’s medicinal Alchermes: the recipe for this cinnamon and clove elixir was first published in 1749, more than a century before the advent of Campari, and the liquid is still in production today, though it no longer derives its cough syrup color from crushed ladybugs. The recipe is one Kayama considered essential source material for his Fresh Campari, which he prepared for me in an oversized mortar that doubled as a mixing bowl and resembled the hull of a warship.

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On a recent trip to Ukraine, I experienced the full range of local bartenders’ feelings about Campari and their alternatives across Lviv, Kyiv, and Odessa, where there’s no mistaking a mixing bowl for a warship in the Black Sea. Taras Meselko, the PR director for local restaurant and real estate developer Fest, summed up the issue for me over lunch at Lviv restaurant Pretty High Kitchen, the group’s latest restaurant on the sixth floor of the Venetian Mansion, a historic apartment building in central Lviv.

“For anyone who identifies as a Ukrainian, it’s a big deal to cancel anything Russian,” Meselko explained, pulling up a Ukrainian chatbot in Telegram that bar and restaurant owners use to check whether or not a brand does business in Russia. “When you have relatives who died in the war, you’re more passionate about the boycotts.”

Nastia Kondratiuk serves up Negronis at Bar Over in Lviv.
Credit: Adam Robb

Upstairs from Pretty High Kitchen, adjoining rooftop bar Higher Ground offers seasonal drinks that demonstrate the talent on display here even in hard times. Of the dozen original creations, I opted for a Strawberry Oolong featuring Milky Oolong tea, Prosecco, and two Italian bitters blended and infused with strawberries to account for its lack of Campari-produced products.

Every bar I visited had embraced some alternative to the Italian staples. At Sheina Miretska’s Negroni Bar, which has locations in Kyiv and Odessa and in Bucharest, Romania, customers can choose from more than 30 aperitif cocktails, including an on-tap Boulevardier along with tiki, Pornstar, and coconut-flavored Negroni riffs. All of them are made with the full range of Antica Distilleria Negroni products from Treviso, like their Old 1919, a century-old Campari riff made with gentian and kola nut. At Lviv’s Bar Over, a months-old spinoff of hot-zone hotspot Ditch Bar in Kharkiv, bartender Nastia Kondratiuk mixed my Negroni with Gamondi Bitter, a Piedmontese amaro created in 1890 — 30 years after the invention of Campari.

More Than a Liqueur

Few chefs are more passionate about the Campari Group boycott than Hector Jiminez-Bravo, whose Bao restaurants in Lviv and Kyiv replaced Aperol with their own homemade grapefruit aperitif. The Bao Spritz has become a best-selling pairing at Bao, a tribute to pan-Asian dinner party palaces like Nobu and Hakkasan. That’s due in part to Jiminez-Bravo’s social media presence and his constant fundraising activities; sales of the drink have even gone toward purchasing a boat for the military unit of a Bao chef fighting on the front lines.

Bravo has the pride of a man who finally found his home in Ukraine after a long and wayward journey. The 52 year-old chef worked his way up through kitchens as he escaped poverty in his native Colombia before finding success as a hotel chef, bouncing between Boston, Ottawa, Hong Kong, and Singapore. He even served Vladimir Putin while working at a hotel in St. Petersburg, Russia, during the 2006 G8 summit. A few years later, he consulted on the Intercontinetal Hotel in Kyiv and moved to Ukraine, where he’s served as a judge on “Masterchef Ukraine” since 2010. He opened the first location of Bao in Kyiv in 2016, and expanded to Lviv during the summer of 2022, when he introduced the Bao Spritz.

The Bao Spritz at Jiminez-Bravo's Bao in Lviv features a passionfruit granité float.
Credit: Adam Robb

“Bao opened in Lviv because Bravo wanted to create a workplace for people who left the occupied east, and to keep the economy going,” Bao director Max Lonachevskyi told me over a round of Bao Spritzes. “We created a bitter that replaces Aperol and all products of Campari; we call it Bao bitters.” Atop my sunset-colored, grapefruit and Prosecco-filled Bao Spritz, a split passion fruit cradled a granité blended with the bittersweet flesh and seeds. Served with a tasting spoon and straw, the drink was as festive as any summer drink served stateside.

“We’re trying to create an atmosphere for people depressed by the war, especially from the eastern side of Ukraine, to create an oasis of distraction to forget for a few hours,” Lonachevskyi told me.

The inspiration for Kayama's Fresh Campari, Santa Maria Novella's Alchermes, beside a 19th C French adaptation of the Florentine recipe.
Credit: Adam Robb

Back in Tokyo, Kayama told me the Russian war hasn’t impacted what spirits he does or doesn’t stock behind his bar — but to his disappointment, it has impacted who can visit him there. He explained how bartenders living and working in the Russian Far East could previously partake in relaxed visa regulations and even in visa-free travel exchanges in some regions, but all of that came to an end in September 2022 when Russia rescinded its goodwill efforts with Japan. Now, Kayama says, his friends are seeking work in more Russian-friendly nations like the United Arab Emirates and Kazakhstan.

“If I wanted to go to Moscow, I would need a visa, but in the east, you never needed a visa because there was always a close friendship there between our two countries, but now they can’t come here at all.”