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A Brief History of Fernet-Branca

a brief history of fernet branca
You’ve probably seen the bottle on the shelf of any and every cocktail bar you’ve ever been in: dark green glass, off-white label with bold swipes of text that call to mind both ancient Latin texts as well as hints of The Lost Generation, and then there’s the logo, an eagle holding a bottle while flying over a globe labeled ‘Branca.’ It’s a fairly distinct bottle, but not one that necessarily commands a ton of attention. What is Fernet-Branca? What does it taste like? How do you use it? If you’ve ever had any of these questions, read on, my friends.

The Basics

Invented in Milan, Italy by Bernandino Branca in 1845, Fernet-Branca is a brand of fernet, which is a type of amaro (Italian for ‘bitter’), which is a type of herbal liqueur that was and is typically served as a digestif, and after-dinner drink intended to aid in, you guessed it, digestion. Digestifs are typically served straight, though mixing with (or serving after) coffee is not unheard of.

The Flavor Profile

Being a bitter liqueur, Fernet-Branca is, obviously and for the most part, bitter. It clocks in at 39% ABV and since it’s inception, the spirit has been made according to the same recipe, which is a closely-guarded trade secret (think Coca Cola, but better). Currently, only the president of the company, Niccolò Branca, knows the proper proportions of each and every one of the 27 different herbs (and the other ingredients) that makes up a batch of Fernet-Branca. Some of the herbs that are known to be included in this recipe are myrrh, quinine, angelica, peppermint, cardamom, and saffron.

Upon first smelling Fernet-Branca, you’ll get a hint of what is to come. The nose is powerful and immediately reminds you that this is an amaro. For those that don’t like black licorice (or those with bad memories of too many shots of Jäger that one night in college), it may be hard to get past smelling Fernet-Branca, but press on. Smell it a little more and you’ll get some of the pine notes or even the peppermint that are some of the signature notes of Fernet-Branca.

The taste is again going to be bitter—medicinal is probably a better word here, or kick-in-the-ass-y, depending on how well you took your cold medicine as a kid—but it’s more than that. If you can get over the will to gag the first (or second or third or even fourth) time, you’ll start to realize why so many people love and are happy to call themselves addicted to Fernet-Branca. Let it settle on the tongue and lets the bouquet of herbs really start to come alive in your mouth. There’s a reason Fernet-Branca is used in so many cocktails (and loved by bartenders)—the subtlety of many of its flavors allows for it to be a cocktail chameleon, blending perfectly with just a slew of other ingredients to provide balance and harmony in many different cocktail combinations.

Related: High West: American Whiskey

How to Drink It

As mentioned, Fernet-Branca is typically served straight as a digestive, but there are a number of cocktails that utilize the liqueur’s bitter and distinct flavor to create complex flavor palates. Below, we’ve included two ways (beyond drinking it straight) to try Fernet. The first is a typically Argentinian concoction while the second comes from the Ada Coleman, who was the head bartender at the Savoy in the 1920s.

Fernet-Branca and Coke

  • 2 oz Fernet-Branca
  • 8 oz Coca Cola

Method: Pour Fernet-Branca over ice and add Coca Cola.

The Hanky-Panky

  • 1.5 oz gin
  • 1.5 oz sweet vermouth
  • 2 dashes Fernet-Branca

Method: Stir ingredients with ice and strain into a chilled glass. Garnish with a twist of orange peel.

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