As far as digestif amaro liqueurs go, Fernet Branca is not for the weak-gutted: first-timers have described its taste as being anywhere between cat-poop to charred Chinese medicine.
Yet, despite its bitterly intense and medicinal taste, Fernet Branca is one liqueur whose demand is on the rise: Argentineans drink an astonishing 25 million litres of it a year, while San Francisco’s drinkers are consuming over 70 percent of all Fernet in the US.
We take a look at what goes into making this liqueur, and try to understand why it’s become so popular.
What is it?
Fernet Branca was created in 1845 in Milan by Bernardino Branca, and is still produced by the same Branca family over 170 years later. Like many amaros, the exact formula of the Fernet Branca remains a family secret known only to the company’s president Niccolò Branca, who personally measures out the aromatics during the production process. The official site notes that there are 27 herbs that go into making it, including aloe, rhubarb, gentian, galingale, and chamomile.
The resulting taste can be described as such: intense, bitter, medicinal, liquorice-like, and – if you’re being generous – has hints of dark chocolate (if dark chocolate was ever mixed with Pil Chikit Teik Aun). If Jäegarmeister has a bitter, darker, more unattractive sibling, Fernet is it.
Fernet Branca’s dark and bitter reputation has seen it become a drinker’s dare – David Angelo, founder of agency David&Goliath, makes every new hire down a shot in front of everyone as a sign of fearlessness. “Some call it Fernet-Branca; we call it liquid courage,” Angelo said of the drink.
Novelty aside, Argentineans drink Fernet Branca voraciously – consuming as much as 75% of its annual global production – by mixing it with Coca-Cola. As for its popularity in the States, the rise of vintage cocktails like Hanky Panky and French 75 has seen an uptick in the use of Fernet Branca.
“The millennial generation has grown up with Starbucks and Peet’s coffee. They’ve developed their bitter taste buds, and our palates have totally changed,” said US-based importer Henry Preiss to Robb Report. “That’s why you see things like Fernet-Branca. Bitter products are in, and they’re going to be around for a long time.”
How can you enjoy it?
If you’re a first timer, don’t try it by itself unless you’re on dare. Seeing that Fernet has nothing sweet about it, mixing it with something sweet and/or sour will help: You can have it the way Argentineans do by mixing it with a 2:1 ratio of Coke to Fernet, or down a shot with a chaser of ginger ale – also known as the Bartender’s Handshake. You could also shake on ice it with a few squeezes of lime, as CK from Coley does it, and Fernet changes into a palatable and balanced digestif.
Once you’re acquainted with the taste, try it out in various cocktails: The award-winning Black Pearl bar in Melbourne uses it to make the Muscat Julep, where four dashes of Fernet provide the bitter balance to the remaining ingredients of sugar, mint, and Rutherglen Muscat wine.