Most liqueurs are gentle, sweet and eager to please, like helpful Boy Scouts in a bottle. Fernet Branca is no Boy Scout. A bombastically bitter Italian liqueur, Fernet Branca is an alpha-dog amaro so powerfully laced with pungent botanicals that grimacing attempts at describing its flavor have dotted everything from standup comedy routines to the YouTube commentary of disbelieving wine tasters. While such a caustic reputation might seem like a marketing kiss of death, Fernet Branca has been successfully shocking a steadily expanding core of drinkers for more than 150 years.
First produced in Milan in 1845, Fernet Branca is a member of the broad class of Italian amari, or bitter liqueurs, that also includes Campari, Averna and Aperol. Designed to be consumed as a post-prandial digestivo and renowned for its alleged powers at countering the effects of overindulging at the dinner table, Fernet Branca is flavored with around 40 roots, herbs, spices and other ingredients, including gentian, myrrh, chamomile and saffron. Redolent with the herbaceous aroma of menthol and eucalyptus, Fernet Branca has a bitter complexity that is jarring on first experience, and bracingly alluring with each subsequent encounter.
While many drinkers may first taste Fernet Branca as a late-night dare in a crowded bar, the liqueur has many dedicated fans who adore its firm slap to the palate. Fernet Branca has long been wildly popular in Argentina, where it is often mixed with Coke, and domestically the liqueur has countless fans in the bar and restaurant industry, particularly in San Francisco. Bartenders in that city sometimes refer to a shot of Fernet Branca (often served with a chaser of ginger ale or ginger beer) as a “bartender’s handshake,” and such is the liqueur’s resonance with the local food industry that recently Andrew Mitchell, a bartender at Rickhouse, designed a cocktail made with Fernet Branca and ginger, which he dubbed the Restaurateur.
Tricky to mix with because of its potent character, Fernet Branca contributes an intricate vibrance to classic cocktails, such as the whiskey-based Toronto and the vermouth-laden Appetizer à l’Italienne, as well as to contemporary drinks, such as the earthy Villa de Verano, created by Boston bartender Misty Kalkofen, and the classically styled Fernet Alexander, served at Anvil in Houston. The liqueur works best with other complex-flavored ingredients, such as vermouth or gin, though the crisp flavor of rye whiskey and tequila also prove good matches. While the flavor of Fernet Branca can take some getting used to, when mixed in a cocktail, the liqueur performs an essential task. “It’s like cooking with a really powerful ingredient like garlic,” says bartender Erick Castro of the Restaurateur. “Without Fernet Branca, the drink is nowhere near as dynamic.”