Before I write anything else here, I want to say this flat-out and unequivocally…
I really like Fernet Branca. I mean really like it. Not just as a digestiv, which is how it’s presented by the makers, but as a beverage, a sipper, a thing to sit and enjoy, slightly chilled, all by itself. I don’t now what this says about me. I do feel a certain kinship with Andrew Zimmern, host of “Bizarre Foods”, but that may be because we’re both chefs and both pudgy. I dunno. But actually drinking Fernet straight isn’t the norm, as I found out only after talking about it with six or seven friends.
Feret Branca was the invention of an Italian spice trader named Bernardino Branca. In 1845, Bernie evidently tried to drum up some business for himself by creating a beverage that’s made with a range of spices wider than most gourmet shops stock. One presumes that Bernardino – who probably did have working taste buds – deliberately got to a point in the creation process and decided he liked it, a thought which would qualify as kinky with a LOT of folks.
The classic pairing for a Fernet cocktail is Coca-Cola. In Europe and Brazil, where Fernet is far less of an exotic thrill than it is here, groups of young folks buy rounds of F ‘n’ Coke which, as cocktails go, isn’t as weird as it sounds. Bitter digestiv in the sugary embrace of the World’s Most Popular Beverage? Somehow, the combination works beautifully.
Individual drinkers have to, of course, decide for themselves how much some of the touchstone beverage virtues that guys like me hold as Articles of Faith matter to them. Complexity, in both beer and wine, is considered a primary requirement; almost as important as the fact of it being a liquid. Fernet is wildly complex. Given the array of herbs, roots, and spices – 27 of ’em, including aloe, gentian root, rhubarb, gum myrrh, red cinchona bark, iris, cinnamon, bitter orange, chamomile, galanga and zedoary (white turmeric) – it could scarcely be otherwise. It’s also rumored to contain saffron but I can’t swear to it. As involved as the flavor profile is, saffron would have to be a major ingredient just to get noticed.
I’m not at all sure I can tell you how Fernet tastes. If liqueurs were people, Fernet and Jagermeister would be cousins who rarely speak. It has no real common ground with any other beverage, aside from maybe a very strong Chinese Gunpowder tea with a big shot of Robitussin in it. It is flatly, emphatically bitter and that’s the main thing it adds to a Fernet and Coke. In much the same way that adding hops to beer pulls the sugary malts back from cloying sweetness, a dash of Fernet tamps the syrupy Coke character just enough to strike a graceful balance and turn it into a much more sophisticated, adult drink. In San Francisco, the verified American capitol of Fernet Fever, the restless natives prefer it as a shot with a ginger ale back. I’ve already tried that combo and, as I write this, I’m sipping my experimental Fernet ‘N’ Coke and would have to come down on the San Fran side of the issue. My Southerness not withstanding, I like my Coke cold and neat, while still recognizing why people would go a little nutso over the combination.
Here’s my best attempt to dissect the flavor of Fernet: Eucalyptus, coffee grounds, menthol, wintergreen, ginger, limestone, cardamom, and chalk. That’s all I got. As a straight sipper, I find a chilled Fernet one of the most compelling and engrossing things I’ve ever put into my pie-hole. I absolutely love the flavor and have a very hard time imagining myself getting tired of it. It’s just too freakin’ interesting…and apparently I’m not alone in that view.
Quick: name any beverage that has two amazingly funny, readable books written about it. I can’t name one. Fernet was immortalized in what is, to this day, two of the most endearing, weird, spacey books I have ever read. The original is Cooking With Fernet Branca, by James Hamilton-Paterson. This is the farthest thing ever written from the cookbook it purports itself to be. It’s the badly fractured tale of Gerald Samper, a British ex-pat living in Italy, who finds himself beset and stymied by his combative next-door neighbor, Marta, a composer who has fled from the fictional Eastern European nation of Voynovia, whose resolute attempts to impose her own reality upon Gerry and everyone else in her immediate vicinity – to quote the brilliant NY Times book reviewer, Dawn Drzal – “provokes the sort of indecorous involuntary laughter that has more in common with sneezing than chuckling”. Chock full of borderline irrational dialog and actual recipes like “Chocolate-Covered Mussels”, “Garlic Fernet Branca Ice Cream”, and “Alien Pie”, a pastry featuring smoked cat, Fernet, kerosene, and a “jaunty buzzard feather”, this is the literary equivalent of a serious cough syrup and peyote binge, with gastric overtones. If you’ve never heard of this book, I beg you to go to Amazon and just buy the thing. You will laugh until your diaphragm seizes up like a two-buck pocket watch. The book was written in 2005 and followed up with a Fernet-themed sequel called “Amazing Disgrace”. I heartily recommend reading both with a cool Fernet on the tray table and maybe a Boxer dog beside your chair. (worked great for me, anyway)
The folks who sent me the sample of this amazing and – I’ve used this term before but not once as appropriately as I do here – one-of-a-kind liquid probably won’t appreciate all the frivolity of this review but I think even the attempt to subject such a singular, wild-eyed, no-holds-barred beverage to some sort of scholarly discourse misses the greatest and most appealing dimension of this…well, what do we call it, accurately? Aperitif? Liqueur? Digestv? I admit I don’t know. But I can’t imagine not mining the fun aspects of Fernet. I revel in the expressions of people for whom I pour a wee dram; the stupefied, bug-eyed shock of the folks who find it revolting and the chuckles of those who get its instant and soulful appeal. The vibe among the group of flannel-clad Seattleites with whom I last drank it was, “I can’t believe this stuff!” and that is sort of the proper response. Fernet is NOT like drinking anything else. You’re likely, if my unscientific little sample is correct, to either fall deeply in love with it or hate it profoundly. One definite thing Fernet has, indisputably, is big-time health benefits. It IS, very much, a digestiv. In my case, with my balky stomach and zoo-like lower tract, Fernet is something that caused my innards to emit an almost audible sigh of relief. God alone knows what Bernardino Branca did to create this stuff but I’m assured that the formula hasn’t changed a hair in 166 years and it is, and always has been, the most individual, different-drummer liquid ever poured into human oral cavities.
Reading back, this is among the most, um, unanchored reviews I’ve yet written in The Pour Fool, so let me sum up: If you are the sort of deeply-disturbed, restless, quest-prone, resolutely-experimental type of twistoid I am – and if you read this bloglet with any regularity, you almost certainly are – I think you will LOVE Fernet Branca as I absolutely do. For my tastes, straight, well cooled, is the way to properly appreciate this spectacular stuff but do it your own way. But if you’ve just never tried Fernet, I urge you to at least order one and give it a thoughtful, meditative sip. If you wind up giggling, you are hereby inducted into the Fernet Legions and your life will never be the same.