You're out on a date. You're hoping to impress your companion and come off as a worldly gentleman or gentlewoman, but the bar menu is chock-full of alien ingredients. Your choice is simple: Get the one with fernet.
It's time for Happy Hour, Gizmodo's weekend booze column. A cocktail shaker full of innovation, science and alcohol. You're bitter, baby, but we like it. A lot.
What Is Fernet?
Firstly, fernet is not a brand. Fernet is a sub-category within the amaro family, which is to say bitter liqueurs. It is extremely herbaceous, usually containing between 20 and 40-something different mysterious ingredients. Gentian, myrrh, chamomile, rhubarb, cardamom, aloe and saffron are all common, and its base is usually distilled from grape juice, with a proof typically between 78 and 90. It's what is known as a potable bitter, which means it's low-proof enough to drink on its own (unlike, say, Angostura).
Like many other bitters, fernet became popular during the 1800s as a sort of medicinal cure-all. It was said to calm the stomach — especially after a large meal — and aid digestion, but it was also purported to cure hangovers, relieve menstrual cramps, and help with drinking-related... performance issues. Early versions had a hearty dose of opiates in them, which may help to explain its popularity. To this day, fernets are still typically consumed as a digestif, but it has an infamous eye-opening effect.
Its closest corollary might actually be Jägermeister, just without the sweetness. It's all that herby medicinal taste you get from Jäger without the spoonful of sugar to make it go down. It's no-joke bitter. Campari — another potable bitter — tastes like candy in comparison. Fernet is a dark-brown liquid, and it goes down very dry, but when you breathe out again you taste every one of those herbs. It's too much for a lot of people to drink straight.
Now, despite fernet not being a brand, when most people say "fernet", they're referring to "Fernet Branca", which is a brand. Fernet Branca is the Kleenex of fernets. It is, by most accounts, the original fernet, first made in 1840s. It's also easily the most ubiquitous fernet. In fact, it's rumoured that Branca uses an estimated 75 per cent of the world's saffron, which effectively lets the company control the market price of one of the most expensive spices on the planet. Other companies make fernets, too, such as Luxardo, Ramazzotti, and even Martini and Rossi, each with their own character and blend of herbs.
Fernet never really lost popularity in Italy, where it's typically made and where it's often taken neat, after dinner. It's gigantic in Argentina, where fernet and cola is the national cocktail. It was semi-popular in the US in the pre-prohibition days, but once those laws went into effect, San Francisco found a way to import fernet as medicine, not hooch. This is likely when it first started appearing in cocktails; like the gin and tonic, mixing the medicine with booze was a tastier way to take it. Once prohibition ended though, fernet somewhat faded into obscurity in the US, and there it would remain for many decades.
The re-emergence of fernet can again be traced to San Francisco. There are conflicting reports as to how and why, but the most likely explanation is two-fold. First, San Francisco's history with the drink it continued to be the stuff of legend around those parts. Second, because SF has reputation for being a food town, it became something that those "in the know" would drink together after hours, which made it a sort of club. Then gradually more and more people wanted to be in that club, and soon bars were marketing the hell out of it.
In 2005, it was estimated that San Francisco consumed roughly 50 per cent of the Fernet in the US. In 2008, it was still at 25 per cent, even as the spirit's popularity spread. In fact, Fernet is kept on tap in a lot of San Francisco bars. The nationwide spread and growth happened along side America's craft cocktail movement, and that isn't a coincidence.
How To Drink It
In Italy, it's usually consumed neat and chilled, or on ice, after a meal. Pretty hardcore considering fernet is regarded as an "acquired taste". In Argentina, as we mentioned, it's typically mixed with a cola.
In San Francisco, where they still power through cases of the stuff like nowhere else in the US, it's typically taken as a shot followed by a ginger beer (or ginger ale) back. In fact, that method has become so common there it's known as a "Bartender's Handshake". The ginger washes some of the herbiness off of the palate and chases some of the booze-fire away too. Plus, ginger is good for digestion, so it's more goodness for your gut.
That said, these methods are a bit too hardcore for your average American drinker. Fernet is just too bitter for most. We still like sugar with our medicine, and that's why it's our rekindled love-affair with cocktails that has brought about fernet's born-again popularity.
Fernet's flavours are so assertive that it's a really difficult spirit to use in a cocktail. Which is why everyone wants to use it in a cocktail. It's an advanced manoeuvre, a chance for mixologists to show off their stuff. That said, the results are typically delicious when done right. After all, if you're going to make a real cocktail, it needs to have bitters in it, and fernet is a wonderfully complex bitters. Virtually every cocktail bar you visit will have its own take on a fernet cocktail, and there is a lot of variation.
Fernet is often added to drinks with a rye, gin, tequila or cognac base. You need something with a lot of flavour, otherwise the fernet will just dominate. Even with a flavourful spirit, you still have to be careful not to overdo the fernet. Egg whites are a popular complement, because they mellow out the bitterness some by adding thickness to the drink. It's interesting to note that there isn't yet one cocktail that stands out as the fernet cocktail, like, for example, the martini does for gin. Experimentation is still the rule, but if you're looking for a good one to start with, give this a whirl:
The Toronto Cocktail
This is a simple riff on an Old Fashioned, and it's arguably the most popular legit cocktail that uses fernet. The recipe according to Doug Ford:
- 60mL rye whiskey
- 7-14mL of demarara syrup (simple syrup)
- 7mL of Fernet Branca
- 2-3 dashes of Angostura bitters
"Stir all ingredients with ice until very cold; strain into a chilled cocktail glass or Old-Fashioned glass. Optionally, express and garnish with orange."
This makes a very nice drink, to be sure, and there's plenty of room to tweak. Personally, I wouldn't go above 7mL of demarara syrup, and I like to push the fernet a bit beyond 7mL, but that will depend on what rye you use. If you want to throw another variation in there, this drink is really good with an absinthe wash.
Congratulations! You now know just enough about fernet to be dangerous. Many find it to be an acquired taste, while others love it right away. Do some experimenting, find out what you do and don't like, and if you've got some favourite fernet cocktails, please do share the recipes below.
Top picture: Wikimedia Commons/Luiscardo