When, two months ago, during a post on vin santo I mentioned the British holiday/vacation tradition of buying a bottle of the local firewater and then leaving it rot in the dark recesses of the liquor cabinet upon returning, I was thinking primarily of the kind of bottles that are simply unavailable anywhere else: artisanal Chartreuse from the Basse-Alpes, Izarra from the Basque lands, single pot-stilled kirschvasser from Switzerland’s Bernese Oberland, etc. But, I’d now like to expand that definition of ill-conceived alcohol purchases to bottles you buy but haven’t tried because owning it will remind you of your trip.
For example, during last year’s lengthy stay in Italy I noticed a similar dark-brown bottle in virtually every cafe we visited, which, frankly, was a lot of cafes. Typically, we’re not afraid to give things a try as regular readers will know, but in this instance our lack of language skills prevented us from inquiring what said bottle contained and how one ought to consume it. Upon returning to America, I spied the same bottle in a bar and asked if I could have a taste. Surprised, the barman admitted that since nobody else had ever asked for it, he had no idea how it was served, so he just poured what turned out to be a very generous shot of a thick, dark-brown, almost black, liquid into a highballs glass and added some ice.
The taste even when ice-chilled was somewhere between pine-scented lysol and baking-soda toothpaste with hints of anise, molasses and ashtray, i.e. not 100% enjoyable. This was my first experience of Fernet-Branca, and some might wonder why I ever bothered to try it again. Well, understanding that one needs to acquire a taste for almost all the best things in life, and that Italians are typically fairly reliable when it comes to knowing good things to eat and drink, I decided that I must not let myself be put off easily and should investigate this beverage further, and heck, if I was brave enough, even drink it again.
Fernet-Branca, or just Fernet as it’s sometimes referred to by the cognoscenti is a rather peculiar beverage in many respects. Firstly, the history of it is unclear. No one seems to know with any certainty where the recipe originated and who is responsible for it. Various sources I’ve come across suggest that it is derived from the traditional Albanian beverage raki/rakhi, others from a medicine developed by a certain Swedish Dr. Fernet for the treatment of cholera, among other maladies, and others from a recipe invented by self-taught apothecary Maria Branca using a variety of local bitter herbs as she sought a cure for menstrual cramps. In fact, such was belief of its medicinal qualities that, in spite of its 40-43 degrees of alcohol, its sale in the US remained unaffected by Prohibition.
Produced exclusively in Milan since 1845, the Fratelli Branca Distillerie still guards the secret of the drink’s formula closely, though they do say it is a concoction of 27 different herbs and spices from four continents, including aloe, gentian root, rhubarb, gum myrrh, red cinchona bark, galanga and zedoary, some of which I’ve actually heard of – wasn’t myrrh a kind of incense brought by the Magi to the infant Jesus? But, didn’t he burn it rather than drink it? Throughout the years various health benefits have been claimed for their drink by the Branca Distillerie, including “febrifuge, vermifuge, tonic, invigorating, and warming” though none have been proven by real scientists. That, though, has not dissuaded the from pursuing this line of investigation to this day, as their very own “Study Centre Maria Branca” is, in their words, “one of the more advanced laboratories for the study of and research into officinal herbs.”
Perhaps ironically, in spite of all this research and these claims of medicinal qualities, Fernet does not seem to be consumed with this in mind, unless of course one believes the original, but now completely discredited, claim of the Coca-Cola company that their dark, syrupy beverage cures what ails you (providing it wasn’t tooth decay, one imagines). As these days, Fernet is commonly drunk either alone (by the very brave) as a digestivo/digestif after dinner, or as a mixed drink with Coca-Cola. Indeed, in Argentina the latter combination of Fernet con Coca is so popular that it even has it’s own song, ‘Fernet con Coca’ by Vilma Palma. Other preparations include, as is popular in the Czech Republic, over ice with tonic water, or, as was lately a cult-classic in San Francisco, mixed with ginger ale.
Learning all this about the drink convinced me that I should at least give it a second chance in a mixed version, and in fact, I found that when diluted substantially with Coca-Cola it is really quite enjoyable, the coke somehow softening the bitter, mud-like flavors I’d found so horrific when taken neat, and allowing the menthol flavors to come through. Now, you might not think that a menthol-flavored coke would be good, but given that cherry coke is good, why not mint? So, emboldened, I tried it with ginger ale and apart from creating a very thick, frothy and peculiar head that never went away, I found that this isn’t too bad either, though I would recommend the cola more highly. Then, in one final throw of the dice, I decided to try it with tonic water, understanding that it was likely to taste pretty nasty. Sure enough, it did taste pretty nasty, although not quite as bad as anticipated, and, by the time I reached the bottom of the glass, it had improved to almost tolerable.
So, the question remains, would I recommend Fernet-Branca to you, the reader? Well, yes, but with some serious reservations. I’m not in the business of being deliberately provocative and saying something obscure and bad-tasting is good, just because it might cause a stir in the blog world and show me and my palate to be somehow in the vanguard, but I thought Fernet and coke was actually rather good. And if you want to try something slightly unusual, then I would suggest you try it. However, unless you think you’ll enjoy drinking something akin to the taste of Angostura bitters mixed with the ash from Newport lights, I would not recommend you drink it neat, ever.
Thanks to the wonderful magazine, The Atlantic Monthly, who did a piece on Fernet Branca in the November, 2008 issue and also used a picture of ours in the piece.