The Fernet Hot House: Don’t Let Hipsters Ruin It For You
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Few spirits evoke such irrational love or visceral hatred than the Italian amaro, Fernet Branca. Some have described the Fernet drinking experience as “the after dinner mint they’d offer in hell.” Others have called it “mouthwashy.” These criticisms are not off the mark – Fernet boasts an assertive flavor that is not for the timid. Furthermore, at 40% alcohol by volume (abv), Fernet can easily put the unsuspecting drinker firmly on the floor. A dangerous mouthwash indeed.
Produced by the Milan based Fratelli Branca distillery since 1845, the amaro has been made with a secret formula, which contains (among other ingredients) myrrh, linden, galangal, chamomile, cinnamon, saffron, iris, gentian, and bitter orange. To this day, there is a single custodian of the recipe, company President Niccolò Branca, who personally measures out the spices for each production run. These spices are infused with a grape based neutral spirit and the resultant elixir is then aged in oak for 12 months prior to bottling.
While somewhat under the radar until recent years it has garnered substantial popularity outside of Italy and in popular culture. Since it is obscure and European it has, of course, achieved wide acclaim in hipster circles. However, its unfortunate association with the skinny-jeaned and ironically-mustached masses should not put off potential drinkers. Fernet has a proud global history and appeal. It is the national drink of Argentina, where it is frequently consumed with cola. There are two explanations as to why this is the case. The first (boring) is that it gained popularity after large scale Italian immigration to Argentina after World War II. The second (more fun) is that Argentines began drinking Fernet in the 1980s as a form of protest during the Falklands War, when university students opted for the Italian armaro over their traditional drink of choice, British whisk(e)y. In New York and San Francisco, a shot of Fernet is sometimes exchanged between service industry workers after a long shift, earning it the moniker of the “bartender’s handshake.” It is even the favored holiday drink of Michael Caine’s Alfred from Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy.
While it can be consumed neat or with a simple mixer, it performs shockingly well in more complicated cocktails. In the storied Savoy Cocktail Book, by the legendary American expat and former bartender of London’s Savoy Hotel, Harry Craddock, Fernet makes an appearance seven times, featured in such drinks as the Stomach Reviver and the Hanky-Panky.
The origins and current cultural status of Fernet are of course interesting, but what is it like to drink? Fernet pours dark brown and red, with green on the edges where it hits the light. It is not as viscous as a Chambord but it is slightly syrupy, briefly clinging to the glass before settling. Fernet is hot on the nose and the first sip echoes that – an alcoholic burn followed by a big hit of menthol (some say this is not menthol at all, but saffron, which takes on a mint-like flavor in high concentrations). As the burn diminishes it gives way to a slight sweetness, and finishes with earthy notes, fungal, almost like the rich soil under the leaves of the forest floor. In one sip, Fernet blends both freshness and decay.
Not to crassly shove in a conflict reference (however, this is War on the Rocks, so what the hell), but if the Fernet flavor profile were to be compared to a terrorist organization’s group dynamics, it would be a solid example of Jerrold Post’s “hot house” hypothesis. Proponents of this theory argue that terrorist group psychology and radicalization is a product of extreme pressure within the organization or network to conform. Members exist in an environment defined by stress, paranoia, and volatility and are bound together by hate for the “out-group” (as opposed to the “bunches of guys” theory developed by Marc Sageman, which positions “in-group” love as a key factor in violent radicalization). In this theory the group leader plays a crucial role, not only operationally, but also in furthering the radicalization of group members. Fernet could be said to fit this model because while there is coordination between these assertive flavors, it is hardly refined. Unlike the smooth elegance of a single-malt or the beautiful bouquet of a properly infused gin, there is something forced and coerced about the flavor of Fernet; it is unnatural. But this dangerous situation works because it is held together, not by virtue of these flavors naturally matching with one another, but because of extreme pressure to conform into one, cohesive taste. Menthol has a strong presence, playing the role of the all important heavy-handed group leader, creating a fleeting harmony where there would normally be discord.
Drinking Fernet is truly an assault on the senses. Individual flavors are difficult to distinguish and there is so much going on that it is tough to focus on individual notes. Also, at 40%, the drinker’s palate is pretty shot after about 3 healthy sips. But perhaps that’s the point. I have never consumed Fernet to dissect it or to comment on how good the myrrh tastes. I go back to Fernet again and again because the experience of drinking it is downright fun. The initial hit of freshness followed by deeper, darker flavors is confusingly familiar. Moreover, if you have friends over for dinner, breaking it out as a digestif allows you to observe some of the most entertaining facial expressions from your guests as they sample it for the first time. Its herbaceous (some would say medicinal) quality is also functional. We have all been in situations where we have perhaps eaten too much prosciutto or runny cheeses of unknown national origin and/or freshness. Fernet settles the stomach, freshens the breath, and prepares the glutton for their next course. Had a few too many the night before? No problem! British Chef Fergus Henderson has a Fernet cocktail as the final recipe in his groundbreaking cookbook The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating. The drink is simply called “A Miracle” and claims to be a sure-fire cure for an evening (or afternoon) of overindulgence.
While certainly not its best feature, another benefit of drinking Fernet is its relative affordability. It retails at $27.99 for 750 ml at my local liquor store, the great Schneider’s of Capitol Hill, but your best bet is to pick it up duty free when traveling internationally. I once scored a bottle for a mere €15 at Berlin Tegel.
As is probably evident, Fernet is not an everyday beverage. However, it deserves a place in any properly stocked bar. Next time you are acquiring provisions, go over to the dark side and pick up a bottle of this bold and bizarre spirit.
James Sheehan is a homebrewer and cider-maker. When he’s not fermenting things he works for a Washington, D.C. based democracy education non-profit. He holds an MA in Terrorism, Security, and Society from King’s College, London.
Photo credit: Gabriel Amadeus