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.
24 thoughts on “Drink of the Month – August: Fernet-Branca”
I had something similar recently, but I enjoyed it straight. It was an Italian walnut liqueur that had similar flavors–molasses, anise, ginger, etc. I certainly wasn’t expecting it and I was a bit taken aback at first, but it grew on me.
i have a bottle – batali used it in a ricotta cheesecake and so i did too – along with sambucca. it was wonderful…
as a drink? hmmm, well i do love campari…
Great you’re trying Fernet! It is definitely an acquired taste. As far as the ginger ale, usually people (in San Francisco, where this is popular) drink it as a chaser after a shot of Fernet, not both of them together. Give it another try!
Reading your third paragraph, I was sure this sounded like traditional home made Raki. And then you mentioned the similarity in paragraph four! Congratulations for going out on a limb and trying something new!
This is interesting, I had never heard of it. Now I’ll be on the look for it.
I love things like this… that might not be immediately appealing, but which could have promise. Will have to keep my eyes open and see if i can find it to give it a try!
Oh, first, I must say I love chartreuse in part because i have made it through drinking a glass or two. second, this is one of my favorite posts your have written.
claudia – we love campari too. it’s certainly bitter but it doesn’t taste like medicine like fernet does.
mike – fernet is an amaro, a group of digestivos distilled from nuts, berries and/or bitter herbs and then “softened” with some sort of sugar – either straight, caramelized or actual molasses. If you like the walnut flavor (nocino) you should also try finocchetto (fennel) which tastes like a cross-between sambuca and nocino.
Lo/Tom – you’re right. this one, both reading and tasting, required, and may still, a little perseverance.
Sara – nice to find a fellow “fan” of Fernet. having drunk it neat without a chaser I was frankly dissuaded from trying it neat again, chaser or no, but maybe I’ll gather some courage to try that in the future!
MM(FM) – chartreuse isn’t tame by any stretch either, and the lurid green can put off even the bravest, so congrats on soldiering on and surviving! thank you also for your kind words. we labor to please!
and finally, thanks all for reading. I wasn’t at all sure that something this obscure wouldn’t prompt disinterest and be generally ignored.
Mmmm…I love this stuff! I’ve never tried it over ice. I’ll have to give that a shot tonight. Usually I drink it neat alongside a cup of espresso.
My husband & I went to a digestif (digestivo) tasting at Lupa in the city, Mario Batali’s place.
Big mistake!!! Out of the 7 we tasted, we hated each one more than the other!!! Cough syrup, cleaning fluid, lighter fluid and just plain old poison.
I needed a glass of scotch just to rinse my mouth out!
You are very daring, and a glutten for punishment!!!!
Enjoying your blog!
I tried to make a joke before about invalids and dropsy, but it wouldn’t take.
Campari is a wee bit too bitter for me (plants make those compounds to deter herbivory, not encourage it), but I might like this with cola.
I think tonic water is bad enough on its own, let alone with something weirder thrown in. Hopefully I’ll never get malaria 😉
Cool post, though. I find it so interesting to see what the rest of the world drinks for fun. Half the time, I think it’s just a cultural version of: “I dare you!” I’ve ended up loving a lot of them, though, like pastis or grappa, so I’ll definitely keep an eye out for this!
Wow – I’m going to have to run out to get a bottle of this! We’re big fans of amari around here, and I miss the huge variety available in Italy. Sigh.
Thank you for showing and reviewing the many ways to enjoy it!
Very interesting. Not so sure I want to try it. And I would never mix it with Coke, I’m a Diet Coke in the Can purist! Can’t mess with that…
Thank you for the education though.
Dawn – you drink it neat sans ice?! you go girl.
Heather/Lori Lynn – I did wonder about the coke thing myself, in that you mix anything with coke and it tastes, well, like coke, but in this case, and I’m not much of a soda drinker at all, they actually make a really great combo.
Peter Marcus – i’m with you on the “I dare you” thing. in this post, I didn’t want to be like “I tried something weird and gross – look how brave I am!”, but that’s kind of what it turned in to.
fergus henderson (chef from the amazing st john) has a recipe for a drink called the dr henderson in one of his books:
1 part crème de menthe
2 part Fernet Branca
Pour everything into a glass (or even cocktail shaker), stir and drink. Without fail, this sorts out the after-effects of lunch and prepares you properly for dinner.
Well, I am a fan of Underberg, Absinthe, Campari, Obstler and the like. But I bought my first bottle of Fernet today, and must say it is different. I have tried a few small samples neat, and must say that even compared to Underberg, this stuff is odd. But I rather like the “grown up” taste. Maybe not cigarette ashes, but certainly the kind of taste favored by the coffee, cigarette and steak crowd.
I have read this is a good digestive, and that sounds right to me. A shot – or two – after a hearty meal should hit the spot.
By the way. are my lips *supposed* to be numb?
Jim in Boston
This is my favorite! I drink it neat, no ice. I have a little
glass of it by me right now.
I appreciate Jim’s reference to the “grown up” taste.
It’s sure not a chocolate milkshake, but it has its own
appeal. I like the scent of it also, and the thought of all
those herbs, nuts etc. that went into making it.
Health and fitness is very important to me, Fernet is the
one “hard alcohol” drink that I can tell myself is actually
doing me good–while making me feel good too!
I don’t need ginger ale, coke, (horrors!) or tonic water
to get Fernet down.
(Takes a sip)
Life is good!
Jenifer in San Francisco
i like this forum,
i would like to have some recette of cocktail.
People, people, people! Allow me to show you the way.
The drink is called a Waterfront, and it is:
2 fingers of Brenet Franca
1 finger of Franca Menta
Ginger Beer (not ginger ale)
all over ice, with a lime wedge
It is fabulous, and leaves you with no hangover.
another use for Fernet-branca:
I’m trying to find a suitable, non-alcoholic substitution for this.
It’s refreshing to come across a person with a writing technique like you. Hard to discover these days on the world wide web.