A curious reader recently asked me:
Why do all you bartenders love Fernet Branca so much?
You know, that's a really good question. I partake in Fernet Branca on a semi-regular basis. I enjoy it enough that I've written about cocktails with it. But calling Fernet Branca an acquired taste is polite at best.
Fernet Branca is one of a broad category of Italian liqueurs called amaro. Well, all together they'd be amari since that's the plural while amaro is the singular, but I feel like I'm splitting hairs. Amaro is italian for bitter, and that's the common theme of amaro liqueur.
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What is amaro? It's an herbal liqueur. The exact blend varies from producer to producer, and they're all fiercely protective of their individual recipes. Judging by the bitterness, gentian root is a pretty sure bet in most of them. Citrus peels often make their way into the mixture, as do ginger and mint. All of these things together make for a tonic that's made to settle the stomach after a heavy meal.
The color of amari range from brown to midnight black. They're all bitter liqueurs, but different brands have different levels of sweetness. Your average amaro like Averna or Ramazzotti strikes a decent balance between bitter and sweet. There are even amaro-style liqueurs from elsewhere in Europe. You've had Jägermeister, right? That's a kräuterlikör, German for "herbal liqueur". It's sweeter than your average amaro, but it's still a descendant of the family.
Then, we get to fernet. Fernet isn't the brand name; it's the category. Fernet is less sweet and sharply more bitter than your average amaro. For this reason, it's a hard sell, especially to Americans. Your inevitable initial dislike of fernet is hard-wired into your brain. Out in the wild, sweet tends to be safe, and bitter tends to be poisonous. You can thank your hunter-gatherer ancestors from millennia ago for your dislike of Fernet. The good news is once you've had it a few times, your brain realizes it's something that won't kill you, and you start to enjoy it.
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But why do bartenders love the stuff so much? I think we can blame San Francisco. Fernet Branca has been popular there for over a century. In the last few years, San Francisco has become a hotbed of mixology, so it's only natural that the habit of a San Franciscan bartender swigging a shot of Fernet at the end of a long shift would spread across the country.
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The complexity of Fernet Branca and other fernet liqueurs is quite enjoyable once you're past that initial hump. But what is there to do with it while you're still getting used to the firepower of drinking it straight? A generous splash of soda helps. Or, you can pair it with some of the included ingredients. In San Francisco, it's served with a ginger ale chaser. So much the better to settle the stomach. Down in Argentina, it's very popular to mix Fernet Branca with Coca-Cola. You can also give it some more mint by mixing two parts of Fernet Branca to one part crème de menthe.