Fernet Branca

The Prelude:

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.

[fernet] antique

The Facts:

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.

The Story:

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] imitators

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.

[fernet] advertisements

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.

The Product:

[fernet] flavor wheel

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.

[fernet] caves

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.

The Uses:

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.

Midnight Stinger

I have long eyed the “Fernet About It” on The Lion’s Share’s menu and was getting excited about it when the gracious & handsome Has suggested another drink he’s been really enjoying lately, the Midnight Stinger, something he picked up on a recent trip to Death & Co. in New York City.

The Stinger is a classic dessert cocktail with brandy and creme de menthe. It is sweet. So sweet in fact, that this is one of the very few all-booze drinks that one should shake (as opposed to stir) in order to mitigate how cloying it can be… and while this “Midnight” version is also suitable for post-meal drinking, that’s more or less where the similarities end:

Midnight Stinger
1oz Elijah Craig 12 year bourbon
1oz Fernet Branca
0.5oz lemon juice
0.5oz simple syrup
Shake, strain over crushed ice in a double rocks glass; garnish with a bright little mint sprig.

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I’m really starting to like these fractioned sours. This cocktail was damn tasty and, to my great surprise, not difficult to drink. You’d think it would be… an ounce of Fernet? It seems a bit rude for mint to RSVP only to have Fernet Branca show up, but as I’ve learned in my life, showing up with bourbon is a good way to be welcomed in the door.

I think it’s the sour template and the crushed ice, but this was a surprisingly easy, herbal drink. It’s a great option for someone who wants some of that peppermint oil in the back of their throat but not a full blast of the Branca’s devil potion. I’d actually give this as an intro drink to anyone curious about Fernet. Great before or after or even during dinner. Delicious.

I’ve still never had any of their menu drinks. I love that place.

Don’t Give Up The Ship

In the late afternoon of June 1, 1813, as he lay dying, Captain James Lawrence could tell by the shouts on deck that the British had boarded his ship. The USS Chesapeake was battered and outgunned but Lawrence was a military man, and he gave what would be his stoic final order: “Don’t give up the ship. Fight her till she sinks.”

His command was universally seen as an act of valor, despite the obvious fact that he had quite a bit less to lose than his men, considering that he was, at that moment, already bleeding to death. But that’s not the point. The Chesapeake was ultimately given up, within the hour even, but that’s not the point either. The point is that “Don’t Give Up The Ship!” became the rallying cry for the fledgling U.S. Navy, who ultimately overpowered the British and (spoiler alert!) won the war of 1812.

Now. What any of that has to do with gin, Fernet Branca, orange liqueur and Dubonnet is anyone’s guess, but it does. Not everything is explainable; enjoy the mystery. What best I can tell, a cocktail by that name first appeared some 130 years later in Crosby Gaige’s Cocktail Guide and Ladies’ Companion in 1941, but twiddled its thumbs in obscurity until sometime around 2004, when it was unearthed and reanimated, like so many other greats, at Seattle’s Zig Zag Cafe.

It was first made for me by Dave Kinsey at Craft and Commerce, who told me he picked up the recipe from Sam Ross. I immediately fell in love with this drink. Fernet Branca is such a problem child that getting it to play nice is a treasure in itself, and the flavors layer perfectly … it hits clean and bright, with the Fernet sparkling like a firecracker on the finish. It’s beautiful.

But, when I looked up the recipe online (here or here or pretty much anywhere), it was different than the one I was given. Not entirely different, but different enough that it would change not just the flavors but the character of the final drink. Mine had a half ounce each of Cointreau, Fernet Branca, and Carpano Antica; the original subs Dubonnet Rouge for Carpano, and halves the liqueurs down to 1/4oz each, subbing Grand Marnier for Cointreau.

WTFuck?

Clearly an extensive round of experiments was in order. Which is like my favorite thing. I made 8 incarnations, learned quite a bit about the mechanics of this particular drink (as well as Dubonnet and Grand Marnier), and came up with what I think is the definitive recipe. I’ll give you that first (if that’s what you’re here for), then below I will — as we used to say — show my work.

Don’t Give Up The Ship (The Best Version)
1.5 oz London Dry Gin
0.5oz Cointreau
0.5oz Carpano Antica
0.5oz Fernet Branca
1 dash Angostura Orange bitters
Stir over ice for 30 seconds; strain into chilled cocktail glass; garnish with a orange peel.

Cheers.

But why should we believe you? (a.k.a. Nerding Out w/Cocktails)

Because I got good and drunk over two nights just so I could tell you these things.

Also, please don’t take my gin choice to say that I think it’s the best for this drink. It’s just what I had lying around.

Attempts 1 and 2:

1: Craft and Commerce/Sam Ross/The One I Initially Fell in Love with

1.5oz gin (Sapphire East)
0.5oz Cointreau
0.5oz Carpano Antica
0.5oz Fernet Branca
2 dash orange bitters (Angostura Orange)

…vs…

2. Same ratios, switch out Cointreau for Grand Marnier

1.5oz gin (Sapphire East)
0.5oz Grand Marnier
0.5oz Carpano Antica
0.5oz Fernet Branca
2 dash orange bitters (Angostura Orange)

The only difference is the orange liqueur, and my god is it a difference. The original recipe calls for orange curacao and most people sub in Grand Marnier, which is way, way worse. Maybe changing to Dubonnet as well will somehow change that, but I doubt it. Not only is the entire drink out of balance, no harmonies to speak of… but the finish, where the Fernet should fizzle, instead there’s all these oaky vanilla flavors from GM’s cognac base. The flavors don’t fit at all, and actually makes me wonder it’s possible that Grand Marnier could ever fit in this drink.

Attempts 3 and 4, reducing the liqueurs from 0.5oz to 0.25oz:

3: Original ratio, with Cointreau

1.5oz gin (Sapphire East)
0.5oz Carpano Antica
0.25oz Cointreau
0.25oz Fernet Branca
2 dash orange bitters (Angostura Orange)

…vs…

4. Original ratio, with the (seemingly more traditional) Grand Marnier

1.5oz gin (Sapphire East)
0.5oz Carpano Antica
0.25oz Grand Marnier
0.25oz Fernet Branca
2 dash orange bitters (Angostura Orange)

This is interesting… this echos the original recipe that has only a quarter ounce of orange liqueur and Fernet Branca. Where before (with 0.5oz each) the Cointreau was perfectly balanced, taking away a quarter ounce of Fernet and Cointreau renders the cocktail effete and kind of waifish. … and it should be noted, this is a problem that the weighty force of Grand Marnier solves nicely. #3 is too light, #4 restores balance. I still don’t think the cognac flavors belong there, but let’s see what happens with Dubonnet.

Attempts #5 and #6: Enter Dubonnet

5th Attempt: The Classic Recipe

1.5oz gin (Sapphire East)
0.5oz Dubonnet Rouge
0.25oz Grand Marnier
0.25oz Fernet Branca

Thinner, a bit oaky, but the near-fruity brightness of the Dubonnet mixes incredibly well with the Grand Marnier. This is totally delicious. The dissonance is fascinating. Definitely a different drink than #1. This may be a Happy Gilmore/Billy Madison situation (you prefer the one you saw first). Perfectly balanced with high complexity. I can’t get over the bright/heavy thing with the Dubonnet/Grand Marnier. Great.

…vs…

6th: Craft and Commerce recipe with Dubonnet instead of Carpano Antica

1.5oz gin (Sapphire East)
0.5oz Dubonnet Rouge
0.5oz Cointreau
0.5oz Fernet Branca
2 dash orange bitters (Angostura Orange)

I feel like in a way this is a drink without a country. Dubonnet has less richness than Carpano, a richness the drink really needs to balance the crisp punch of Cointreau. Very interesting. The lightness makes the Fernet almost toothpaste-y, plus with a mess of jaunty flavor wisps on the back end. It just misses. Flavor waves don’t line up. One of five stars. Would not buy again.

Final Test: #1 against #5

I guess I could’ve just skipped straight to this, but I wanted to understand the mechanics and now I do. The classic with Dubonnet and Grand Marnier is a lower tone, more restrained. Sitting around a fire, maybe. Craving warmth. The vanilla and oak flavors certainly dictate the overall feel. #1, on the other hand, is bright and cheery, cleaner and crisper. It showcases the Fernet. It’s a modern drink – bright, complex, full. I end with what I started with. #1, with a bullet.

Attempts #7 and #8: Postscripts & Curiosities

7th: Can I switch out a citrus-forward new gin for the juniper-forward London Dry?

1.5oz gin (Martin Miller’s Westbourne Strength)
0.5oz Cointreau
0.5oz Carpano Antica
0.5oz Fernet Branca
2 dash orange bitters (Angostura Orange)

Miller’s Gin is on the other side of the spectrum: fuller, and much more citrus/less juniper. The answer is No, no, you can’t mess with the gin. Use London Dry, something crisp and juniper forward. It’s actually pretty amazing how much the cocktail fell apart with the Miller’s. Heavy, unpleasant bitterness. Don’t even bother.

8th: How about the new ratios with the classic liqueurs? 0.5oz of everything but with GM and Dubonnet?

1.5oz gin (Sapphire East)
0.5oz Grand Marnier
0.5oz Dubonnet
0.5oz Fernet Branca
2 dash orange bitters (Angostura Orange)

No way. Way too much. This is a jumbled hodgepodge of messy flavors all trying too hard to get noticed, like the cocktail equivelent of watching The Bachelor. Curiosity satisfied. I don’t need any more. We have our champion.

Mane of Needles

“…soft as a mane of needles…”
The Mars Volta
Miranda That Ghost Just Isn’t Holy Anymore — B. Pour Another Icepick

At URBN, we take a measure of pride at being one of the only places in North Park to get a proper drink. Regardless of their individual background knowledge or off-menu skills, everyone behind our bar can make a great Old Fashioned, Manhattan, Negroni, etc. No one could legitimately call us a cocktail bar, and yet we’re a bar that can make great cocktails.

This is a tool in our belt that I refuse to give up. I don’t care one fucking bit that the nuance and balance of our drinks are wasted on 99% of our clientele. We don’t maintain quality just for them; it’s for us too. Or, at least, for me. Tending bar is not an inherently cerebral activity, and craft cocktails, for me, are what forestall the fungal ennui that grows on everything that doesn’t progress.

In that spirit, we left one spot on the winter cocktail menu for an drinker’s drink, something whiskey and potent. That drink is the Mane of Needles. Of the 10 or so cocktails on the new menu, this is the one I really like, the one for the enthusiastic minority of our customers that share my taste. It’s the only one I’d happily make for Scott Holliday or Misty Kalkofan or Tom Schlesinger-Guidelli or any of the other Boston greats who introduced me to this world. Borrowing inspiration from the Violet Hour’s wonderful Autumn Negroni, I combined my initial goal of marrying Fernet Branca and Benedictine with the layered-bitter thing that they did so well, and thus:

Mane of Needles
2oz Bulleit Rye
0.75oz Carpano Antica
0.5oz Campari
0.25oz Bénédictine
0.25oz Fernet Branca
1 dash Angostura Orange bitters

Stir ingredients in a mixing glass for 30 seconds; strain into a chilled cocktail glass; garnish with orange peel.

There’s something soft and accessible about Bulleit Rye, but at 90 proof it’s study enough to provide the infrastructure for this drink. I think of Carpano in this case as an emulsifier, with Campari’s robust bitterness playing against the sweet; the Bénédictine and Fernet, though just at a quarter-ounce each, are co-dependent enablers that play off each other to add spice and flourish. But it’s devil Fernet, with its peppermint oil and menthol, gives the Mane of Needles its name. The drink is, on the whole, soft and smooth with gentle bitterness and enough liqueur to make it silky, and yet while drinking it, the Fernet jumps up to offer little bridled pinpricks along the way.

This was also, of all the cocktails, the easiest to name. The experience of drinking it immediately reminded me of the Mars Volta lyric. It’s like petting a porcupine. But a delicious one.

Note: at URBN, we slightly modify the proportions to make it (1) easier to construct in a hurry, (2) less expensive for the consumer, and (3) not so much damn booze. The Mane of Needles (Album Version) is 1.5oz of Bulleit Rye, and 1.25oz of a 3:2:1:1 Carpano / Campari /Fernet / Bénédictine batch that we pre-make, with a dash of Angostura Orange bitters. This has the added effect of slightly increasing the ratio of rye to liqueur, which in the end makes the whole thing taste a little better anyway.

Trivia!“Soft as a mane of needles” is six words, which is the maximum amount of consecutive words you can quote from the Mars Volta — from any part of any of their songs — before you start getting strange looks. The full stanza, by way of proof:

“Punctuated by her decrepit prowl she, washed down the hatching gizzard.
Soft as a mane of needles, his orifice icicles hemorrhaged by combing her torso to a pile.”

See?

Autumn Negroni

When I was back in Chicago over Thanksgiving, Vikki, my sister Kelly and I took occasion to go to the Violet Hour — my favorite thus far of the Chicago cocktail bars, even if it is a faux-speakeasy. I’ve never really been into the whole  fake speakeasy idea, and am relieved that the trend seems to be dying. People sometimes forget that “pretense” is the root of “pretentious,” a fact I’m never more aware of as when I’m at a hidden, exclusive, “password-only” bar that I found by checking their address on yelp.

Regardless — once you find the stupid hidden door and wait at the stupid velvet curtain, actually being there is a very pleasant experience.

The standout drink I had there was called the Autumn Negroni, which on paper looked redundant. Five of the seven ingredients (71%) are bittering agents, and one could reasonably think that once you have Campari, Cynar, Fernet Branca, and Angostura Orange bitters, a dash of Peychaud’s seems like a waste of everyone’s time.

In practice, however, the bitters strip away individually and at different moments, yielding waves of flavors that make each each sip last like 10 seconds. Each ingredient picks up at the tails of the last one and carries the flavor for a while before handing off to another. It’s like a relay race, or cars of a train. This drink is so fucking good.

Autumn Negroni

2oz dry gin (Beefeater)
0.75oz Carpano Antica sweet vermouth
0.5oz Cynar
0.5oz Campari
0.25oz Fernet Branca
1 dash orange bitters (Angostura)
1 dash Peychaud’s bitters
Stir over ice and strain into coupe glass; garnish with orange peel.

I immediately asked them for the recipe, which they immediately gave me. Not to single out Saltbox, but I’ve made this drink for probably two dozen people, all of whom loved it, and all of whom now know where to get it if they ever find themselves in Chicago. I share recipes with anyone who asks. I firmly believe it makes all of us better.

Peychaud’s anise shows faintly on the nose alongside aromas of the sweet vermouth’s wine. But what’s so engaging about this drink is that you get to taste all the ingredients, more or less one after another. When taken, the sweetness of the amari mixes with the gin’s juniper, followed by the bittersweet Campari and the brightness of the orange bitters, but right when the Campari would turn rusty bitter that quarter ounce of Fernet Branca prickles up all peppermint and menthol, only to be batted back down by the long, earthy finish of the cynar.

Before this, I had no idea that bitters could layer in this way. I have since used this as the inspiration for the Mane of Needles, my favorite of the URBN cocktails and about which I’ll write soon.

This is the kind of drink that you keep going back to, keep taking small drinks because you identify something different in each sip, and when you feel like you’ve almost mapped all the flavors, you find there’s nothing left but sweetness on your lips and you have to do the whole thing all over again. Which is all I could ever ask from a cocktail. Four stars. A+.