What started over 170 years ago as mysterious, boozy medicine has grown into the spirit of choice among legions of bartenders and enthusiasts. We’re speaking, of course, of Fernet Branca. Now more popular than ever, the dark and syrupy elixir is a living testament to the value of secrecy, consistency and keeping it all in the family. In honour of their remarkable legacy, the brand hosted Storied Sips at the Rookery Bar in Portland, Oregon. On hand at the celebratory event was Count Edoardo Branca himself, a sixth generation scion whose passion and knowledge is infectious. Needless to say, the man loves his Fernet Branca.
Man of Many was lucky enough to attend Storied Sips and we couldn’t have asked for a better time. We’ve covered Fernet Branca before and highlighted its qualities as a provocative liqueur that delivers dense, multi-layered flavour with a sharply bitter finish. However, Storied Sips cast new light on the spirit by way of a delectable cocktail program and truly engaging information session.
Ultimately, the story of Fernet Branca boils down to family and technique. That is, the brand has been owned and operated by the same family since its origin in 1845, and has utilised the same general recipe and technique the entire time. The recipe involves culling 27 herbs, roots and spices from around the world, blending them, and aging them in oak casks for 12-16 months. Included among the ingredients are saffron, rhubarb and chamomile. It should also be mentioned that the brand has never compromised on the recipe, no matter how many marketing gurus tell them to sweeten things up or cut down on the bitterness.
While the recipe has remained the same, Fernet Branca’s relationship with the public has been wildly dynamic. The spirit began as a medicine and was used initially to open up appetites for those who’d lost the will to eat due to illnesses like cholera. Such medicinal value even allowed Fernet Branca to slip under the radar during prohibition, even though it was already being consumed for leisure by that point. In the time since, Fernet Branca has been used as a digestif, a hangover cure, or just a refreshing alternative to the overly sweet garbage they mix together at most bars. In Argentina–where Fernet Branca has a separate distillery that makes a slightly different version exclusively for the regional market–they drink it with Coke. In Denmark, they drink it in the morning. Elsewhere in Europe, it’s commonly still used to whet the appetite before dinner.
Just as the attitude toward Fernet Branca has changed, the ingredients inside it can take on a life of their own and dictate the subsequent taste. For instance, some herbs and spices might change in character over the years. Also, while the profile of herbs, roots and spices stays the same, sometimes the company needs to find new suppliers, which will inevitably result in variables. Lastly, the Brancas might tinker with aging times and proportions in order to yield even greater balance, texture and taste.
To drive the point home, Edoardo Branca handed out three samples of Fernet Branca : one from the 70s, one from the 80s, and one from the present day. In spite of being more or less made the same way, there was a profound difference between the three samples. The 70s sample was syrupy on the nose, thinner in texture, spicy in taste and even slightly effervescent. By contrast, the current variant was far more balanced, less spicy, richer, denser and more flavourful.
Edoardo Branca capped off the night by signing copies of the hardcover book: Branca: A Spirited Italian Icon. Edited by Edoardo’s father, Count Niccolò Branca, the book is a treasure trove of insight and history. Of course, if you don’t feel like reading you can always just pour yourself a glass of Fernet Branca and taste the history for yourself.
Special thanks to Fernet Branca, as well as the amazing staff at The Rookery Bar inside Raven & Rose Restaurant.
Photo Credit: Allison Webber