Build-A-Bar: Fernet Branca

Fernet Branca is not for everyone. In fact, I think there's a fair argument to be made that Fernet Branca is not for most people. It usually gets a visceral reaction on first taste. I've seen it firsthand. My reaction upon tasting Fernet for the first time (Pro Tip: It's pronounced Fur Net, not Fur Nay, like I mistakenly ordered it) was less one of shock and disgust as one of profound curiosity.

I turned to my wife, offering her a sip, and pronounced Fernet to be "the single most interesting alcoholic beverage I've ever consumed." Batavia Arrack just might have displaced Fernet in that lofty position, but I still find Fernet intriguing, even after quite a bit of experience with it. While it may be an "acquired taste" when consumed neat, I'm convinced that it's a much more flexible and agreeable cocktail component than might be immediately apparent.

Fernet is an Italian bitter herbal liqueur, or Amaro. Amari are commonly taken as digestif's, and have long enjoyed a reputation for medicinal properties, curing many ailments, notably "overindulgence." For much of its history, Fernet's popularity has been confined to old Italian men. For some reason, it has found a fairly recent following with hipsters, chefs, and industry folk. I'd like to say that the new-found hipness owes exclusively to Fernet's profound deliciousness, but I'm just not convinced that's the case. The mystique of the esoteric and unapproachable is one factor, no doubt.

Rather than cherishing Fernet for its very inaccessibility, I'd rather see Fernet championed for its very real ability to add an extraordinarily unique character to drinks. I'm always encouraged to find Fernet mixed into approachable cocktails, as I've grown quite fond of the stuff, and think it should have a wider audience. I feel bad for the poor, misunderstood Amaro. Of course, there are those who would say (and I see their point) that to mix Fernet into other things, downplaying its character, is to miss the point entirely.

I take solace in the fact that Fernet is not easily downplayed, even when mixed with a myriad of other spirits. Even when it's a background component, its effects are fairly unmistakable. Fernet is bitter, mentholated, and powerfully flavored with herbals. It's like a non-minty mint, mixed with eucalyptus and cough medicine, with a sly and serpentine twist of licorice snaking through it, exiting your throat with a boozy and spicy wallop. If a taste can be viscous, this is it. When I think of the physical form Fernet would take, I imagine the oily sludge of Hexxus. Yes, that was a Ferngully reference.

Yet, despite the palate-punching nature of Fernet, it's also strangely beguiling. I think part of what keeps me coming back is the need to figure out just what it is I'm drinking. Even after having consumed quite a bit of Fernet, it's just a bit mysterious, every single time.

In researching Fernet cocktails, I came across an unsurprising revelation. It's not in many. The nature of Fernet is so dominant, and so particular, that it has a tendency to overwhelm other ingredients. You really have only two choices with Fernet. Either you pair it with other strong flavors, or you pick things that will be dominated pleasantly.

The first cocktail I whipped up came to me by way of my older brother's girlfriend, who was visiting with him from NYC a while back. With a bit of time to kill, they had dropped in to Half Price Books on Westheimer, and she had picked up a book on Yodeling. She's going to fit riiiight in, if she ever decides to make an honest man of my brother.

At any rate, she just happened to mention to me that her yodeling book contained a recipe for an interesting sounding cocktail, aptly named The Yodel. "The Yodel is apparently equal parts Fernet Branca and orange juice with the rest club soda," she told me. "Seems like it would be kinda gross, but you never know." I tried it. She was right. Imagine a watered down, slightly fizzy combination of Tang and Listerine, and you're on the right track.

A little bit of digging turned up reference to the Fanciulli Cocktail, named for a somewhat belligerent USMC Band Leader and composer of insanely complicated military marches. I suspect that this drink is a combination of alcoholic insult and tribute, in equal measure. The Fanciulli takes the approach of pairing Fernet with other strong flavors, subbing it in for Angostura Bitters in a Manhattan riff.

I deviate a bit from most of the recipes I found online, preferring to let the Fernet come through a bit more. I also used bourbon instead of Rye, simply because I didn't have Rye on hand. The rye would add some additional spicy notes, and take the sweetness down a notch, which would probably be good in this case. It's very important to use a full-bodied vermouth, as it needs to stand up to the Fernet.

Fanciulli Cocktail:

1 3/4 oz. Whiskey (preferably rye) 3/4 oz. Fernet Branca 3/4 oz. good Sweet Vermouth

Combine all ingredients in mixing glass with ice, and stir until chilled. Strain into cocktail glass and garnish with a (real) maraschino cherry. The drink is sweet, bitter, herbal, and winey. It's a warm, spicy drink with a lot of flavor going on. If you like Manhattans, you will like this drink. If you don't like boozy cocktails, this one might not be for you.

Trying to lighten Fernet up just a bit, I started thinking about what flavors pair well with mint (remember Fernet's pseudo-minty qualities). Fruit, particularly berries, came immediately to mind. One of my wife's favorite ways to drink Fernet is as a simple addition to very, very dry sparkling wine. I combined those two notions, coming up with a riff on the classic Kir cocktail.

Kir Destroyale:

1/2 oz. Fernet Branca 1/2 oz. Crème de Cassis Dry Sparkling Wine

Combine Fernet and Cassis in a champagne flute, top with Sparkling Wine. Garnish with a few bruised berries (I used blackberries) and a mint sprig.

No bones about it, this is a fairly sweet cocktail. The dry, yeasty wine balances the sweetness, and the Fernet adds a roundness to the whole affair, while offering a chilly and clean finish. I wouldn't want to drink this all the time, but the combination works.

I wish I could say this last one is purely my original idea. I will say that I came up with it independently. Unfortunately, though unsurprisingly, it's been done before. Again working with the minty qualities of Fernet, I decided that it would sub well in an Alexander variant, offering a more adult take on the Grasshopper. It's surprisingly delicious. The cream spreads the Fernet flavor out, allowing it to spread slowly across your palate instead of attacking it. The result is creamy and spicy, sweet and rich, and a perfect after-dinner indulgence.

Cavalleta Cocktail:

1 1/2 oz. Fernet Branca 1 1/2 oz. Crème de Cacao 1 1/2 oz. Heavy Cream

Combine all ingredients with ice and shake hard. Strain into a cocktail glass, garnish with ground nutmeg. I actually garnished with ground cardamom, because I couldn't find the nutmeg I thought I had. I think it added a nice, slightly more exotic twist to the drink.

So, Fernet is exactly what people say it is, but it's also much more. Enigmatic, mysterious, and strangely rewarding, I encourage you to give it a try. If you want to start out with a shot, more power to you. If you want to take some baby steps, give that shot to one of these ideas. As a parting gift, I leave you with this, just because.

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