Fernet For Life

Learning to love a mysterious Italian bitter


There's a fairy tale quality to fernet -- we're talking Brothers Grimm here, not Walt Disney. Alone in a glass, the cola-brown spirit conjures the woods and strange roots dealt by witches; there are medicinal notes, too, but of the sort bought in burlap and taken on faith.

A magical series of things happens when you do a shot of it. First, you recoil from the lacquer of black licorice and fresh paint, it's alarming and tongue-coating. Once it's gone, your brain sorts out what's happened, and any given drinker will describe different phantoms -- chocolate, caramel, mushrooms, earth, mint, orange oil, mouth wash. Finally, you join one of two groups of human beings: those who will never try fernet again, and those who will never again live without it.
The facts of fernet are that it's an Italian herbal liqueur, usually served as a digestif, alone as a shot or on the rocks. It's a sharply aromatic blend of bits ranging from aloe to wormwood, depending on who's doing the distilling. The myths surrounding fernet concern all of the ailments it can purportedly cure. Chef Fergus Henderson has deemed it something of a miracle salve for hangovers (and he's not the only one), and folk legend, especially in its adopted home of South America, holds that a shot of fernet can ease everything from cramps to organ failure.

"Fernet is the spirit, Branca is the brand." This is Gonzalo Piñeiro, winemaker at Filus, a bodega in Mendoza, Argentina. By his hand gestures, I get the actual point he's making: When it comes to fernet, especially in this part of the world, Branca is the only brand that matters. "There's not much of a cocktail culture here," he says, "but every bar has wine, beer, and Fernet-Branca."

The same waves of Italian immigration that brought skilled winemakers and artisans to Argentina's rural interior laid the groundwork for a national love of the old country's spirits. "The trend of Fernet-Branca started in Cordoba, and spread from there to Buenos Aires," says Piñeiro. "That's a rare path." During the spirit's migration to the city, it picked up a key companion it has yet to shake: Coca-Cola.

"'Fernet' here means Fernet and Coke," insists Martin Lazorenco, a manager with Michel Torino, a winery in the Cafayate Valley. A small village in the northwest, Cafayate is known for its expression of Torrontes, a white wine that, according to Lazorenco just moments before, is the signature taste of Argentina. When I later mention I've yet to have fernet since I've been in the country, he jokingly reconsiders wine's place in the hierarchy of national beverages. He sends immediately for a bottle of Fernet-Branca, but the bartender returns with the Cokes alone, the day's supply of Branca having already been depleted. "Don't worry," Lazorenco says. "Everyone's got an extra one somewhere."

A server does soon turn up with a bottle and two highballs filled with ice. Lazorenco fills each to the brim with equal parts fernet and soft drink, not bothering to stir. The sweet, caramel wash of the Coke wears the Fernet-Branca like a cape, a bitter, licorice-laced wrap that warms the soda's spine. It's more intriguing and less cloying than anything you'll otherwise mix with cola, the dark-force equivalent of myriad Cuba Libres or Jack & Cokes. The best part is that it may ease the effects of the morning after, even as you overindulge in it -- and while there may be no proof that it staves off organ failure, what a delicious way to hedge your bets. 

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  • Snooth User: hpm1640
    38471 1

    Great! I met Fernet Branca in Buenos Aires, where the fave method of imbibing is 1:1 Fernet and Coke. I recently posted about another "Fernet Branca experiment" here: http://ht.ly/3DkR5 ... and just updated to reference this article.

    Jan 13, 2011 at 1:04 PM

  • Snooth User: MykePagan
    166600 3

    There is a great old Bill Cosby comedy routine that features... nay, the punchline revolves around Fernet-Branca. IIRC the stuff is hella expensive. I bought a bottle long ago because I'm of Italian heritage, but I must admit that it is missing exactly one shot because I can't stand the licorice flavor.

    Jan 13, 2011 at 7:09 PM

  • In both Europe and Brazil, we've always had Fernet Branca on hand for indigestion, stomach cramps, or as an occasional digestive. We have it here too, in the States, but only because we know of it from our time spent overseas. I quite like, and drink it from time to time just as a cocktail on ice with a bit of lemon or lime and a splash of mineral water.

    Jan 13, 2011 at 8:09 PM

  • Snooth User: kelvin8r
    471439 24

    $40.00 wasted when I was forced to dump this gag-inducing swill down the drain. Stuff's undrinkable. I'm NOT adverse to bitter per se, but Fernet belongs in the insecticide section at Home Depot. Avoid!
    Strega or Amaro Ramazzotti are more palatable digestives worth the $$$!

    Jan 13, 2011 at 10:16 PM

  • Snooth User: preko
    677775 5

    Try the Branca-Menta just once - the Branca producers mint flavored digestif - and you´ll never even think of the Fernet again!

    Jan 14, 2011 at 3:47 AM

  • Snooth User: VASwede
    565441 3

    Is it anything similar to Borsci S. Marzano?

    Jan 14, 2011 at 5:36 AM

  • Snooth User: Carly Wray
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    196958 864

    @ hpm Thanks for the shout out! 1:1 strikes me as the best ratio for F&C, as well -- and I learned last night that it works wonders on Coke Zero.

    Jan 14, 2011 at 4:06 PM

  • i will try it tomorrow and see for myself

    Jan 15, 2011 at 3:22 AM

  • I love it served over ice but the thought of cola as an addition sends shivers. For those fearing Fernet's demanding tastes most bars in Italy hold a close cousin called Menta Branca, which offers a soothing menthol kick to camoflague the liquorice.

    Jan 16, 2011 at 8:57 AM

  • Snooth User: freppy
    188283 1

    I cherish fernet. It is always in my fridge. It calms me when I need it. It energizes me when I need it. It cures almost anything and is, I attest, a magical thing.

    Jan 18, 2011 at 8:19 PM

  • I had a sip last night at my favorite Houston cocktail bar (thanks Anvil) and heard lore that this is the bartender handshake (a shot of fernet) in cocktail bars throughout the country. True?

    Jan 18, 2011 at 11:15 PM

  • Snooth User: dschiller
    736499 1

    A friend and I recently conjured up an all-pig dinner (http://bit.ly/awa64R) for ten, many parts, many dishes, using Fergus Henderson as our spiritual guide. We then followed his irreplaceable advice and created a pitcher of "The Remedy"—Henderson's soothing digestif comprised of equal parts Fernet Branca and Creme de Menthe. It works....great stuff, and highly recommended to follow any serious meal. Plus it's unexpectedly complex and delicious. Now an essential.

    Jan 19, 2011 at 9:23 AM

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