Learn to make a cocktail with this classic bitter
Fernet is an ‘Amaro’, Italian for “bitter”. Fernet itself is a category within bittersnamed after a fictitious Dr. Fernet Svedse, a supposed Swedish medic first credited with championing its healthful benefits. It is also drier and more medicinal in flavour than most bitters.
Bitters are made as an infusion of herbs, spices, vegetables or even fungi, in alcohol. They can be barrel-aged or not, as their dark hue comes from the addition of caramel and sugar to soften their hard edges. Bitters also come in two primary categories “Potable” and “Non-Potable”. Potable bitters can be consumed on their own, and non-potable bitters are concentrates typically added to cocktails or foods to add a note of ‘seasoning’ flavour.
There are many different fernet brands that come from either the Czech Republic or Italy, companies such as Luxardo, Cinzano and Martini & Rossi all make fernet, though they are not all easily found. When people ask for “fernet”, they are by and large referring to Fernet Branca, by the Fratelli Branca Distillery, which has operated in Milan since 1845. While the exact 40 ingredient strong recipe is a tightly held secret, Fratelli Branca is the world’s biggest consumer of saffron. Its iconic logo, of the soaring eagle grappling a bottle of Fernet Branca in its talons over the globe, has been officially registered with the Italian Ministry of National Economy since November 1905.
Despite its Italian roots, San Francisco is considered by some to be the second home of Fernet Branca. Fernet has been one of the service industry’s favourite end-of-shift drinks there for decades, supposedly since Prohibition, when establishments served it legally as a medicinal beverage. The city has the single biggest consumption rate on earth with a quarter of all North American Fernet consumed there. Not to be outdone, in Argentina, almost 4 million cases of Fernet Branca are consumed annually. They have their own distillery in Buenos Aires, built in 1905. The only ingredients that are different in the South American version are the sugar, sugar cane distillate and their own local chamomile. Everything else comes from the same sources as the Italian distillery.
Like many classic bitters, Fernet Branca started as a medicine for the treatment of cholera and it has several ingredients known to boost liver function (one more benefit of imbibing). The ingredients of Fernet Branca are independently hot steeped, like a tea, or cold steeped in alcohol. The longest infusions take up to 90 days to complete, then the many infusions are blended and aged in oak for a year. It is then lightly sweetened and brought down to 39% alcohol.
The best quote on the taste of Fernet Branca came from Rachel Smith when she reviewed it for British newspaper, The Daily Telegraph. She called it…
Fernet Branca doesn’t care if you don’t like it. It asks you to come to its level.
To get a sense of what Fernet Branca will taste like, the easiest frame of reference for many is Jagermeister, with the sugar level cut drastically.
While Fernet is a potable bitter, it is fun to create cocktails with its plethora of complex flavours. In time, you may enjoy drinking Fernet in a simple shot. But until then a great introduction to fernet is a drink that delicately opens its ingredients,’”Fernet con Cola”, as the Argentinians prefer to enjoy it.
What’s the best time of year to get into Fernet or the best time of day to try it?
It has a curative effect on hangovers, so it’s welcome in the morning after a late night. It also aids digestion, so can be enjoyed before or after a meal. It has a fresh, cooling sensation, which is ideal for hot days. It is higher in alcohol and more medicinal than most bitters, which can help keep you company on a cold day. So really, it is perfect for all occasions. There isn’t a day of the year, or a time of day that I’d refuse the offer to sip or shoot some FernetBranca.
Fernet Branca isn’t the elixir that should be your first stop on an exploration of the world of aperitifs, amaro and bitters. But is a stop that you should definitely take. Cin Cin!
2 oz. Alberta Premium Rye
1/4 oz. Fernet Branca
1/4 oz. simple syrup (1:1 sugar/water dilution)
Combine ingredients in mixing glass. Add ice and stir until well chilled. Strain into cold glass and garnish with orange peel.