If you're a devout cocktail devotee, you've surely heard of Fernet Branca, the in-your-face Italian liqueur that makes its cousin Campari look like a cherry lollipop by comparison. There's bitter, and then there's Big Boy bitter.
That's Fernet Branca, an acquired taste that aficionados like to say you'll have to drink seven times to fully appreciate. My question is: do I really WANT to like something so much that I have to endure six unhappy experiences to arrive at an allegedly blissful seventh? This makes me a rube, I'm certain.
See also: -- Small Batch Spirits at Micah Olson's Bar Crudo
But since Fernet Branca is on everyone's lips these days (both literally and figuratively), maybe it's time to learn more about it. What exactly is Fernet Branca and how should we drink it? You're about to find out.
First of all, Fernet is an amaro, a category of herbal Italian liqueurs originally meant to be drunk after dinner to aid digestion and therefore called digestifs. Amari (that's plural) are often syrupy and bitter-sweet, and their alcohol content ranges from 16%-35%. That's why they're usually sipped (drunk neat or over ice) or used sparingly in a cocktail.
Campari (one of the key components in a Negroni) is also an amaro, as are Aperol and Averna -- all of which are cool these days but not quite as cool as Fernet Branca.
Amari are typically produced by macerating herbs, roots, flowers, bark and (sometimes) citrus peel in neutral spirits or wine, adding sugar syrup and aging the mixture in bottles or casks. Fernet Branca, which was first produced in Milan in 1845 is flavored with about 40 roots, herbs and spices (including myrrh, gentian, chamomile and saffron), then aged for a year in oak casks.
Fernet Branca is hugely popular in Argentina, where it's drunk with Coke, but here in the States, mixologists are adding it to cocktails, which requires a bit of skill, given its intense flavor.
Mixologist Richie Moe of Citizen Public House says, "With Fernet, less is more because it's such an aggressive flavor. I use it as an interim between liqueurs and bitters."
Up at R&D (Moe's upstairs mixology lab), he makes a milkshake using Fernet Branca, playing up its minty/eucalyptus flavors to replicate a peppermint patty. Moe also admits to using Fernet as a hangover cure, adding espresso to Argentina's Fernet and Coke. That's gotta be some wake-up call.
Meanwhile, chef Bernie Kantak has just added an appetizer using Fernet to his menu: Fernet-charred steak salad with mizuna, kale, toasted pecans, beet chips and Maytag blue cheese dressing ($14). Apparently, a small amount of Fernet is added to a marinade of soy, brown sugar and mustard. It's not a dominant flavor in the dish.
Moe shows me his Challenge Coin, passed out by Fernet-Branca to members of the U.S. Bartenders Guild. If you see a fellow bartender, you challenge him to show his coin. If he doesn't have it on him, he must buy you a drink. If he does, you must buy him one. Clever marketing, eh? Phoenix is the fourth city in the country to receive the coins.
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