If you’ve ever heard the word “Fernet” uttered aloud, odds are you were sitting at the bar when it happened. The word was followed by a nod of approval from the bartender before he grabbed Fernet-Branca off the shelf and poured it neat for the fellow sitting next to you, a 30s-something with a beard who as it turned out was also a bartender at a separate establishment. Without even realizing it, you just witnessed a “bartender’s handshake”.
Intrigued by the sight of the dark, syrupy liqueur, you asked what exactly Fernet-Branca was and either got a sly response like “it’s what a lot of off duty bartenders drink” or a brief history of near mythological proportions. Being an adventurous type you ordered a glass for yourself, and upon tasting the bitter liqueur the mystery only deepened.
Here are the basics: Fernet is part of Italy’s Amaro family, a group of herbal-based liqueurs known primarily for touting bittersweet notes (Amaro means “bitter” in Italian) and properties that help you digest. Among the Fernet brands and varietals, Fernet-Branca is perhaps the most legendary. Its history goes back to the 1800s, as does its top-secret recipe that stays in the family (father and son Branca are pictured above) and includes over 27 herbs. In recent years Fernet-Branca has taken off in cities like San Francisco as the “insider’s” drink of choice, i.e. what bartenders drink after their shift. In countries like Argentina the liqueur has earned a devout following among casual drinkers and industry insider’s alike. Some say the spirit has medicinal qualities and promotes a healthy lifestyle when consumed in moderation. Others say it cures hangovers. And some just like to be different.
On the nose of Fernet-Branca is the aroma of dense mint and medicine, almost like some sort of syrupy mouthwash. When you take a sip your palate is first greeted with a full-bodied combination of mint and chocolate with subtle components of licorice, spice, citrus and herbs. At the finish comes a bombardment of bitterness. First time sippers might find such extreme bitterness unpalatable (rest assured those taste buds will adapt quickly). You swallow it down and the bitterness hangs on the tongue, flanked by lingering notes of sweetness and aromatics. The nearly full proof liqueur warms the stomach and already you find your palate adjusting. You’re either eager for another sip or ready to stick with familiar drinks like whisky and wine.
Fernet-Branca is aged up to a year in oak barrels. Caramel colouring is added to lend it that dark brown profile. Among the known ingredients are myrrh, rhubarb, chamomile, and saffron (saffron being the ingredient that many say gives the spirit such a minty flavour). Between its mysterious aura, absolutely distinct taste and alleged medicinal qualities, it’s no wonder that Fernet-Branca has gained such a healthy following in recent times. Of course, no words can really do the spirit justice. In order to see what all the fuss is about you’ll just have to order a glass the next time you’re at the bar. Prepare for something different.