At the far side of a dimly lit bar, two bartenders share shots of an unknown brown liquid. They’re drinking fernet—most likely Fernet-Branca—and taking part in a well-known industry ritual often referred to as “the bartenders’ handshake.”
This bitter Italian herbal spirit can be found on the shelf of almost any rickety watering hole or high-end cocktail palace. From Milan and Argentina to San Francisco, Fernet-Branca has earned its place in the mixologist lexicon and built a culture all its own.
Here’s everything you need to know about Fernet-Branca.
What Is Fernet?
When people talk about fernet, nine times out of ten, they’re talking about Fernet-Branca. Like Kleenex or Q-tips, the brand has become synonymous with the category. There are several brands currently producing the liqueur but, “Fernet-Branca is the original,” says Erin Campbell, regional portfolio manager for Fratelli Branca Distillerie, Fernet-Branca’s parent company.
The drink “is an ill-defined style of Italian bitter digestive,” says The Oxford Companion to Spirits & Cocktails. “Although widely considered to belong to the amaro family, some argue it forms a category of its own.”
For those unaware, amaro is Italian for bitter and it is a vast category of Italian herbal digestifs. It’s believed to aid in and stimulate the digestive system and is often imbibed after a big meal.
While the herbs and spices used to create fernet differ by brand, usual ingredients include myrrh, rhubarb, chamomile, cardamom, aloe and saffron.
The History of Fernet
As far as it can be traced back, Fernet-Branca was created in 1845 in Milan, Italy by Bernardino Branca at Fratelli Branca Distillerie. The origin of the actual amaro category or even the exact recipe for Branca remains unknown.
According to Branca: A Spirited Italian Icon, “The first publicity billboards told the story of an elderly Swedish doctor and his long-lived family…The advertisement never offered details of the relationship between Dr. Fernet and Branca, or how they got together to produce the ‘renowned’ and healthy liqueur. In the following years, the original recipe was credited to some anchorite monks, who lived in a remote hermitage in the Alps.”
Campbell meanwhile explains, “Fernet was originally marketed as an anti-choleric. During the 19th-century outbreak, this herbaceous and medicinal potion was used in hospitals to activate patients’ digestive systems.”
From there, the liqueur found its way to Argentina, where Italian immigrants introduced it during the Great European immigration wave of the late 19th century and early 20th century. Today, Argentina “consumes more than 75% of all fernet produced globally,” notes CNN.
In the U.S., the medicinal properties of Fernet-Branca “were heavily marketed to Americans,” says Campbell, which led to its popularity during Prohibition when it was sold at drugstores and pharmacies.
Unlike most European alcohols, “Fernet was first imported to San Francisco, not New York, and really took hold with the bar and restaurant communities there,” she adds. Today, San Francisco holds about 25% of Fernet sales in the U.S.
How to Drink Fernet
Typically containing 39% to 45% alcohol by volume (abv), fernet can be enjoyed at room temperature or with ice. Most of the time it’s enjoyed as a shot, but it can also be mixed into coffee and espresso or used as an ingredient in a cocktail.
Campbell says Italians drink fernet “neat, throughout the day and after a meal.” But bar consultant Cari Hah finds drinking “it straight up is challenging for people new to it. So probably start by drinking it in a cocktail.” Here are some great starter cocktails for those new to fernet.
The Hanky Panky Cocktail
The most famous fernet cocktail may be the Hanky Panky. According to Branca: A Spirited Italian Icon, the drink was created by Ada Coleman, who started as a bartender at the American Bar at the Savoy Hotel in 1903. The cocktail supposedly gets its name from Sir Charles Hawtrey—famed for his debonair and disreputable roles in Oscar Wilde and Somerset Maugham plays—who cried out after tasting the drink, “By Jove! That is the real hanky panky!”
In a mixing glass, stir all ingredients over ice. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with orange peel.
The Apotheke Cocktail
The history of the equal-parts Apotheke cocktail can be traced back to Harry’s ABC of Mixing Cocktails from 1919.
In a mixing glass, stir all ingredients over ice. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a cherry.
The Last Man Standing Cocktail
Ever imagine what a Negroni would be like if it was made with Fernet-Branca? If so, it might be worth mixing up a Last Man Standing. This one comes from the book Last Call: Bartenders on Their Final Drink and the Wisdom and Rituals of Closing Time by Brad Thomas Parsons.
In a mixing glass, combine all ingredients and stir for ten seconds. Expel oils from both orange twists onto the mixing glass. Finally, strain contents into a mixing glass. Garnish with one orange twist.
Drink Fernet with Coke
In Argentina, it’s most commonly enjoyed with Coke as a long drink and known as fernet con coca or fernando. The carbonation, sweetness and rooty-ness of cola pairs well with the herbaceousness of fernet.
Top a Cocktail
If you’re really looking to mix things up, Hah suggests, “Something that people may not have tried but is delicious is a shot of Fernet on top of a Piña Colada. The Fernet balances out the sweetness of the Pina Colada and really brings depth to that cocktail.”
What Does Fernet Taste Like?
Fernet tastes “bitter, herbaceous, medicinal and root-y (think bitter root-beer), like black licorice,” says Campbell. “This beverage is not for the faint of heart. The bitter, cloyingly dry, tannin-like complexity of fernet is sure to make one pucker.”
“The taste is not easy, and certainly not fanciful,” writes Niccolò Branca di Romanico in Branca. “Imagine the opening lines of a novel by Dostoevsky: you know you have a quality artifact in your hands, and you sense it has intriguing secrets but you cannot quite understand what they are. Fernet-Branca is like this.”
Branca went as far as to coin the term “Fernet Face” to aid in allowing one’s palate to warm up to the idea of Fernet and get acclimated. Try the three-sip approach when first sipping the beverage.
Hah, meanwhile, describes the flavor of fernet as “very complex, herbal, slightly bitter, but also slightly sweet and minty.”
Why Is Fernet a Bartenders’ Drink?
One reason for fernet’s popularity amongst bartenders is that it acts as a signal of commonality.
“Generally, if someone sits at a bar and orders a fernet, the bartender will answer with ‘so where do you work?’ assuming they work in a bar or restaurant,” explains Campbell. “This has become the symbol of alerting your peers you are one of them, giving a sense of camaraderie, the ultimate ice breaker.”
What Does Fernet Do to Your Stomach?
How do we say this politely? Since fernet is supposed to be a digestivo, “after a heavy meal a shot of Fernet kinda moves things along in your gut to put it delicately,” says Hah.
Campbell adds, “Fernet-Branca is touted as the cure-all for stomach aches and can even nurse a hangover.”