First published in the Irish Times, Saturday 2nd April, 2016
Nothing can quite prepare you for your first hit of Fernet-Branca. Mine came over breakfast, courtesy of a Danish colleague, who assured me it was the only way to start the day. I thought he was trying to poison me. Fernet-Branca is dark, mysterious and bitter. Very bitter. Drunk neat, it is dry, medicinal, sharp and herbal, like a slap across the face.
I once read a memorable description of Fernet Branca as “like waking up in a foreign country and finding a crowd of people arguing in agitated thorny voices outside your hotel window”.Italians like this sort of thing; witness the popularity of Campari, cima di rapa and other bitter brassicas, and liquorice. They treat Fernet-Branca and other bitters as a digestif. A small glass at the end of a meal is said to ward off indigestion and promote well-being. Elsewhere, there are those who swear it is the perfect antidote to a hangover, but that is probably because it tastes like a severe punishment, and temporarily dulls the senses.
Fernet-Branca was invented in 1845 by Bernardino Branca. His company, Fratelli Branca Distillerie of Milan, is still run by the Branca family. As with so many drinks, the recipe is a secret, but the company website tells us it has 27 herbs from four continents, as well as spices and roots. This includes aloe from Sri Lanka or India, and chamomile from Italy or Argentina. It is aged in old oak barrels for a year prior to bottling.
Fernet-Branca is hugely popular in the bars of San Francisco where bartenders apparently start their shift with a shot, and sometimes continue throughout the evening.
The most popular cocktail is the Bartender’s Handshake, Fernet and ginger ale, sometimes drunk one after the other. But it is Argentina that consumes the greatest quantity of Fernet-Branca, some 25 million litres each year, usually as a Fernandito or Fernet con Cola.
It is even available in pre-mixed cans. On a recent visit to a trendy Buenos Aires nightspot, bartenders were offering all manner of Fernet-based cocktails. I tried one and returned to my Malbec.
Throughout its history, Fernet-Branca has been marketed as having curative properties, in the 19th century as a treatment for anxiety and fever.
Early labels claim it “benefits the stomach, promotes digestion, strengthens the body, overcomes cholera, reduces fever, and heals those suffering from nervous weakness, lack of appetite, sickness or tapeworms; suitable for use as a preventative measure for all those who are obliged to reside in damp and infectious conditions. May be taken at any time of the day as required, undiluted or mixed with water, soda water, wine, coffee, vermouth, or other beverages”.