November 18, 2021
Thanksgiving is all about being a huge, fat, gluttonous American. Power through to that next course with the help of a Fernet - your doctor will thank you!
A table full of your favorite autumnal delicacies offers a lot to be thankful for. And it can be easy to get carried away in your gratitude. If you’ve eaten a bit too much, you may be searching for something to relieve that intense pressure building within your upper abdomen. Fernet is the solution. For the uninitiated, Fernet is a type of amaro - a bittered herbal liqueur of Italian origin. (For more details on amari and other herbal liqueurs, see my article from our last newsletter.) The most popular brand is Fernet-Branca, but many other producers make Fernets as well - even some American producers!
A Fernet after a large meal is incredibly soothing, and it’s the only thing that can keep me from turning into a grumbly, bloated troll after I’ve overindulged. A nip of Fernet will settle the stomach and aid digestion. In fact, these medicinal properties are part of the reason Fernet-Branca was able to survive prohibition! It was originally marketed as an anti-choleric in the late 1800s, and sold to both pharmacies and bars. In need of a nip? Head down to the local apothecary for a bottle of the herbaceous, curative elixir! And did I mention that Fernet purportedly will not cause hangovers??
Minimally sweet, Fernets offer a wonderful bitter, minty, woody complexity. They are deeply herbaceous, aromatic sippers on their own, but if you find their flavor profile to be a bit overwhelming, there are many cocktails you can mix to showcase their flavors while minimizing their intensity.
Fernet Leopold ‘Highland Amaro’ 40% ABV
Denver, CO $30
The Fernet Leopold Highland Amaro is structured as primarily herbaceous, with notable mint. The people at Leopold Brothers create this amaro by selecting a palette of bitter roots, steeping them in alcohol, and following with rose petals, elderflower, chamomile, and honeysuckle to create depth and complexity. This veritable witch’s brew rests for weeks before being drained and racked into Chardonnay barrels for aging. Careful hand-bottling preserves the delicate nuances of both flavor and aroma.
Deeply minty on the nose, with chocolate notes and chinchona. The palate opens with a tingly bitterness, does a few herbaceous somersaults, and finishes with an interesting - and lingering - gentian-esque bitterness, all while balancing a breathy exhale of minty freshness. Pour this over mint chocolate chip ice cream and go nuts.
Contratto ‘Liquore Fernet’ 30% ABV
Asti, IT $31
Their recipe includes the extracts from 33 aromatic herbs, spices, roots, and seeds, 18 of which are trade secrets. They list the following 15 as aromas (presumably these are the 15 non-secret ingredients): aloe, licorice, saffron, anise, fennel, ginger, mint, myrrh, juniper, nutmeg, cinnamon, rhubarb, quassio, cloves, milk thistle. These flavors are cold-extracted and irrigated for 35 days. This maceration of botanical powders is then mixed with water, alcohol, and sugar before being filtered and aged in steel tanks.
This is the most balanced of the Fernets, and the most approachable. It has a richness and satiny texture that keeps the minty bitterness of the finish from overpowering. This has all the flavor with minimal intensity - start your sipping journey here.
Don Ciccio & Figli ‘Amaro Don Fernet’ 25% ABV
Washington, DC $36
An Italian family, now in DC, reviving their own historical recipes from 150 years ago. Barrel-aged for 12 months in 250-liter French oak barrels, this Fernet is based on an infusion of 25 selected roots and herbs highlighting fresh mint, dark chocolate, ginger and saffron. No glycerin or menthol is used.
The most floral of the bunch, with a powdery cinnamon-bark nose. The palate offers violets and perfumy white flowers, backed by black licorice, gentian, and chocolate. The minty-gingery finish offers a nice balance and closure to the robust aromatic profile. Not as bitter as the Leopold, less rich than the Contratto, and less bitter than the Branca.
Fratelli Branca ‘Fernet-Branca’ 39% ABV
Milan, IT $32
Artist Kathleen Kowal beautifully illustrates the allure, illusion, and history of Fernet-Branca in this infographic. My favorite tidbit from her gorgeous artwork is the suggestion from a particular Argentine bartender that it takes “9 admirable tries for the unaccustomed palate to appreciate the flavor of Fernet-Branca”. With a base of distilled grape spirits and caramel coloring, the recipe contains 20-40 different aromatics including: aloe, bay leaves, cardamom, chamomile, cinnamon, galangal, gentian root, myrrh, peppermint oil, quinine, red cinchona bark, rhubarb, saffron, sage, St. John’s Wort, wormwood, and zedoary. Some of these raw materials are boiled to obtain the infusions and extracts. Once all are combined, it is aged in wooden casks for 12 months.
The first time I drank this, I felt like I was drowning in the intense flavor and complexity. After the legendary 9 admirable attempts, however, I did notice a change. The aromatics were no longer so overwhelming; the complexity was no longer so intense; the herbaceousness was no longer so off-putting. In fact, the complexity became increasingly alluring - especially after evenings of culinary over-indulgence. The botanical witch’s brew imparts a softening on the one’s over-full stomach.
Fernet-Branca offers the richness of the Contratto; the complexity of the Don Ciccio; and an overall tingly quality akin to the Leopold. The bitterness is less intense than that of the Leopold, though deeper and more complex. Don’t be afraid. And if you are, I offer you some of my favorite recipes.
2. Based on personal experience, I find this statistic to be accurate.
2 oz Elijah Craig Straight Rye Whiskey (or other rye whiskey of choice)
¼ oz maple syrup or simple
¼ oz Fernet
2 dashes Angostura or other aromatic bitters
Fill glass or shaker tin with ice and stir for 20 seconds. Strain into a martini glass or a rocks glass with a single, large cube (Cristalino Ice!). Garnish with an orange swathe and a Maraschin0 cherry.
Structurally like an Old Fashioned, using Fernet as part of the Bitters profile (although the name seems to imply it’s a riff on a Manhattan). This is an excellent set of Fernet training wheels. Don’t be afraid to substitute another barrel-aged spirit for the rye!
1 oz Fernet-Branca
1 oz Campari
Stir over ice. Strain. Take it as a shot. To really impress your guests, combine 8 oz of each in a pitcher and refrigerate for 1 hour beforehand.
I can’t believe how well these two amari balance each other out. I’ve only ever had it with the two brand names listed, but what fun you could have experimented with different Fernets and different Red Bitters!
Fernet + cola
2 oz Fernet
6 oz Coca-Cola or other Cola product of choice
Combine in glass with ice and enjoy.
The Argentinian classic. Fernet-Branca is so popular in Argentina that the brand built a second distillery there! Ginger Beer (or Ale) is also a popular combination, in the same proportions listed.