Devil Fernet. My old friend.
My first taste of Fernet Branca was forced upon me at Green Street Grille in Boston. I think the bartender’s name was Andy, but we called him Copatude, in honor of ‘tudes he would so invariably cop. He mentioned Fernet, and then incredulous of our vacant expressions, asked (with raging ‘tude), “how have you never had Fernet?!,” and poured us some. I smelled it, and looked up at him to see if this was some kind of prank. “Dude,” he said, “trust me. This is the business.”
It tasted like boiled woodchips. It tasted like some hideous pre-Hippocratic Chinese remedy, or maybe the kind of after-dinner mint they’d offer in hell. It tasted not so much bad as unlikable, and I nope’d my way through every subsequent Fernet offering for at least a year. After a while, curious that so many people around me claimed to like it, I tried it again, and was surprised to find it tolerable. Six months later, I had it and I actually liked it. Then, the cravings began, the inexplicable desire for that sharp bitter complexity, a need for which nothing else would do. It was all I wanted to drink. “Mysteriously satisfying,” they say, one of the only lines in alcohol marketing that I completely affirm. That was probably three or four years ago, and it hasn’t stopped since.
This is how it goes for everyone, and Fernet Branca is, thus, the shibboleth of the cocktail world: when someone asks for a shot of Fernet, I usually ask them where they work. It is the bartender’s handshake, a way to recognize each other, as acquired a taste as you’ll ever find behind the bar. In fact, it’s so vile to the uninitiated that it works — more than any bar tool or tattoo or mustache — to distinguish between cocktail people and non-cocktail people. The perennial us and them.
This may all sound insufferably pretentious to you, and I’m not here to say you’re wrong. All I will say in our defense is that it’s not an affectation: we really, sincerely do love it.
Name: Fernet Branca (Fur-net, not Fair-nay)
Category: Potable bitters — the “amari” (plural) or “amaro” (singular) in Italian.
Subcategory: A digestive, and the first and most popular of the subcategory of Fernet
Proof: 78° (39% ABV)
Origin: Milan, Italy, since 1845.
Nose: pine; menthol; sharply herbal
Taste: layered throughout with peppermint oil, menthol, resiny pine, aloe, saffron, a little coffee, cooling mint, deep mid-palate bitterness, and a lingering, peppery minty finish that reminds me of the spots you blink out of the darkness after a firework show.
Italians, as a people, are somewhat preoccupied with digestion. As such, they view eating and drinking as two arms of one culinary experience, meant to be enjoyed concurrently: before a meal, an apertivo/apertif has bitter herbs to stimulate the appetite; wine comes during the meal to compliment the food; and after, the bitter herbs in a digestivo/digestif allegedly (see Trivia, at bottom) hasten digestion and stimulate enzyme production while the carminative herbs relieve some of the gaseous effects of overeating. It’s not that they drink any less than we do. They just have a more convincing pretense.
So what is Fernet Branca? It is a digestive made by the Branca company, and the first and most popular of the subclass of amari (bitter liqueurs) called Fernet. So even though everyone always calls it “Fernet,” there are in fact many different Fernets — Branca has just managed to become synonymous with the category. So much so, in fact, that even bartenders are frequently surprised to hear that other Fernets exist. At the Branca distillery, they have an enormous case of these imitators (below), in a kind of “isn’t that cute” magnanimity.
Fernet Branca was marketed initially as a home remedy. In 1845, Bernardino Branca (or his herbalist daughter-in-law Maria Scala) created the elixir in Milan and named it after Doctor Fernet, a Swedish centenarian who, they claimed, attested to the liquor’s health benefits and who, we know now, never actually existed. Despite his rather glaring ontological disadvantage, the imaginary Swede was very convincing, and together with Scala’s no-less-dubious claim that it relieves menstrual cramps, the brand took off.
One funny thing about Branca is that they’re unusually proud of their advertising prowess, a subject most brands allergically avoid. Most liquor companies don’t want their populace-manipulation tools to be scrutinized, but Branca has a whole section on their website about it, and a solid hour of their distillery tour is literally just showing you advertisements from the last 165 years. Funny or not, they were early to the idea that alcohol is a field especially susceptible to marketing, and this knowledge continues to serve them well.
Italians have it after dinner, or sometimes as a hangover cure, spiked in a bit of espresso. Fernet and coke is the national drink of Argentina, Fernet with a ginger back is the civic drink of San Francisco, and as I said, Fernet shots are the unofficial liquid mascot of the craft cocktail world.
They tell people it’s made from 27 herbs, some of which are secret. The real number is closer to 40, seeing as there is actually an enormous flavor wheel at the Branca distillery that shows you 29 raw ingredients. It may be 27 herbs and 14 roots, or whatever, but the point is that there’s a lot. Here’s what they’ll tell you is in it:
Orris, colombo root, coffee, laurel leaf, myrrh, cardamom, aloe, small centaury, mace, bitter orange, juniper, zedoary, chamomile, tea, anise, cocoa, musk yarrow, linden, peppermint, marjoram, white agaric, Chinese rhubarb, bitter orange ring, gentian, cinnamon, chinchona bark, galanga, saffron, and what my notes seem to say is “Green Perding,” which is not a real thing but I embarrassingly can’t read my own handwriting.
They infuse these in (secret) batches according to their (secret) recipe on a backbone of overproof neutral spirit they buy by the railroad car. It’s aged in their cavernous cellar in 10ft tall, 20,000-30,000 liter Slovenian oak barrels for a year before bottling.
One of the things that marks Fernet Branca is that it’s exceptionally dry — there is very little, if any, sugar added, and is therefore not a liqueur, by definition or otherwise: liqueurs are sweet and soft and simple, meant to facilitate introductions between spirit and drinker, like Fredo Corleone sent to Vegas to meet Moe Green and establish the family. Fernet is more like Sonny, who can barely spend 10 full minutes in a room before either (1) fucking someone or (2) beating the shit out of them.
I’m of the opinion that alcohol is never healthy — there are smart people who swear by that digestivo business, but I personally have never experienced it. I will say that a shot of Fernet is the greatest short-term hangover cure ever created (long term being, of course, cheeseburgers and action movies). It’s great to shoot and nice to sip, once you’ve acclimated. It goes well with ginger ale or ginger beer, and the South Americans will insist on pouring coca-cola into it, and… you know… fine.
In cocktails, you rarely see it more than a half-ounce at a time. It’s an uphill battle getting it to play nice with other ingredients, and the best Fernet cocktails I’ve had use between 0.25oz and 0.5oz for a lingering peppermint finish. Online searches will give you the Toronto and the Hanky Panky, but the best Fernet cocktail I’ve had is either the Autumn Negroni or the Don’t Give Up The Ship.
Full list of Fernet Branca cocktails here.
TRIVIA #1: Allegedly. Digestivos allegedly aid digestion. This article is written taking this claim at face value, but I’ll save you the Google work and tell you there is no reputable scientific evidence for these claims, or at least none that I could find. In fact, every single time the emotionless light of science has been shined on this particular issue, it finds the opposite: alcohol hinders digestion considerably more than any herbs in the alcohol would help it. As a mild anaestetic and vasodialator, alcohol may relieve some of the experience of overeating, but hasten digestion it don’t.
TRIVIA #2: The inclination to pronounce it “fair-nay” is understandable, as it actually is a French word. It’s a surname originating (as best as I can tell) around Burgundy. The Brancas probably chose it for their fictional 100 year old Swede because it was exotic. Nonetheless, as Fernet Branca is an Italian product, we pronounce it the Italian way, and Italians — like almost every other language using the classical Latin alphabet — think a silent T is fucking stupid.