Fernet is a polarizing liquor. Most people either love it or hate it. Upon first whiff, Listerine, licorice and savory spices overwhelm one's senses, and slugging a full shot of the stuff can leave a freshman imbiber in a minty stupor. Did I just knock back a mouthful of powerfully bitter, minty mouthwash?
Fernet, a bracingly sharp and minty intoxicant, is a subsect of amaro—the broad category of bittersweet herbal Italian digestif liquors usually consumed at the end of a meal to aid in digestion—and counts a centuries-old history rooted in medicine.
Made from botanicals macerated in a spirit base, most popular now is neutral alcohol, amari can run anywhere from 18 to 70 percent alcohol by volume and are produced all throughout Italy. Similar to the idea of terroir in wine, amari are flavored with locally growing plants, herbs and more so as to represent the flavor of a given region.
Fernet vs. Amaro
Aside from having an ABV that usually clocks in at 40 percent, the main difference between Fernet and amaro is that Fernet is less sweet, in fact, usually not sweet at all. But, as Fernet popularity has grown, distilleries in other parts of the world have joined the Fernet game, branding their own botanical macerations as "Fernet," some involving more flavor-forward fruits, spices, and a new sweeter taste.
Tonia Guffey, bar manager and beverage director at Dram in Brooklyn, New York, and creator of amaro line Guffey Amaro, describes Fernet as a "herbal bitter liqueur that tastes kind of like shoe polish and mint but in a good way."
Like amaro, Fernet's roots lie in medicine. The first ever Fernet formula was designed by an Italian doctor, Dr.Fernet, who built his secret recipe with over 50 herbs and botanicals. In 1842, then Milan-based Felice Vittone modified the formula to be more palatable and sold the outcome as "Fernet Vittone." Three years later, Bernandino Branca at Fratelli Branca Distillerie, also in Milan, came out with his own Fernet, "Fernet-Branca," which today is the world's most popular Fernet. In fact, what came to be known as Fernet-Branca has become so synonymous with Fernet as a liquor category that "Fernet-Branca" is often misunderstood to be the name of the liquor type, while in reality "Fernet" serves as a moniker to signify a style of drink, and "Branca" is actually this liquor's brand name.
Like many Fernets, Branca is made from an undisclosed blend of herbs, in this case 27 ingredients from four continents. Among them are aloe, chamomile, myrrh and saffron. And, according to Guffey, Branca buys three fourths of the world's saffron.
Fernet Beyond Italy
After becoming extremely popular in Europe, when immigrants moved to America around the turn of the century, they brought Fernet along with them. During Prohibition, Fernet was sold as medicine and thusly its sale prevailed when other alcohol was banned. Says Guffey, "There was a plant in New York City that was shipping Fernet-Branca to drugstores in North Beach, California. Like, lots of drugstores. The demand was huge ... the recipe for Fernet at the time was also very different. It included a high amount of opiates which, as you can imagine, helped fuel its popularity."
Aside from its feel-good formula (which was eventually modified), part of Branca's success could be attributed to its distillery's "ahead of the game" marketing campaign, says Guffey. "The logo is the same logo from famous illustrator Leopoldo Metlicovitz." From there, "places with strong Italian sects, with large Italian communities, helped to spread its popularity," she continues.
Likely thanks to its wide distribution in North Beach early on, San Francisco has become Fernet's headquarters in the U.S., while Argentina and its Italian community have also embraced the spirit. In fact, Argentina is the only country in the world to have a Fratelli Branca Distillerie outside of Italy. And Fernet and Coke is also the country's national drink. Interestingly, the formulas made in Italy, Argentina, and the U.S. are all different. Explains Guffey, "I've had friends bring me Fernet from Italy, it was much more saffron heavy and less herbal. The American Fernet is much mintier than Argentina's, which has more of a rhubarb and gentian flat root beer kind of quality or more of a cola vibe."
Fernet: The Un-Official Bartenders' Handshake
Walk into a bar, order a shot of Fernet, and you'll immediately get points from whoever is pouring the drink. Fernet has, somehow, become the unofficial bartenders' handshake. It's like going into a restaurant and ordering the offal over the roast chicken: the more adventurous the dish, the more chef points. And the same holds true with booze. Guffey describes Fernet as a challenge: "It's not an easy drink ... We like things that are complicated ... It may be a shitty truth, but honestly the preciousness of complexity attracts people in this industry ... Your palates relationship to this product moves in so many waves, it's hard to not at least respect that aspect of it."
While Branca has the Fernet world somewhat cornered, that hasn't stopped countless distilleries, both in Italy and beyond, from making proprietary versions of their own. Below, 10 unique Fernets that are not Fernet-Branca.
10 Fernets That are Not Fernet-Branca
Producer: Leopold Bros
Liquor: Fernet Leopold, Highland Amaro
From: Denver, Colorado
Leopold Bros' 40 percent ABV Fernet drinks more akin to a sweeter amaro than an aggressively bitter Fernet. The nose smells reminiscent of a strawberry Fruit Roll-Up, coriander and tea, with a similar fruity red berry and mint palate. This is a fruit bomb of a Fernet and one that drinks almost like a Tawny Port. It's super quaffable and delicious, but its mild bitterness might leave some Fernet fans yearning for more. Known ingredients are rose petals, elderflower, honeysuckle, and chamomile, and this liquor rests in Chardonnay barrels before it's bottled.
Producer: Dala Spirits/Bittermens
Liquor: Salmiakki Dala
Labeled a "Scandinavian" Fernet, Salmiakki Dala was inspired by Scandinavia's bitter licorice candies, "salmiakki." Keeping in mind classic Fernet flavors, Salmiakki Dala was born, made from 10 botanicals including saffron, licorice root, anise, chicory and aloe. This sweeter-styled Fernet derives its sugar content from beets, and tastes of aromatic flowers and chamomile, followed by a milder, bitter finish.
Producer: Vittone 1842
Liquor: The Original Fernet Vittone
Although Fernet-Branca may be the world's most popular Fernet, Vittone was the first. Developed by Dr. Fernet as a medicinal treatment, in 1842 Felice Vittone and family tweaked the recipe to be more palatable and hence Fernet Vittone was born. Like Branca, Vittone's formula is secret, composed of 50 plus ingredients like saffron, cardamom, orange peel, rhubarb, and chamomile. The liquor ages three to five months in oak before it's bottled. This Fernet channels a straightforward minty flavor, back palate bitterness, and a lighter, less syrupy body than some of the the other Fernets sampled.
Producer: Royal Vallet
A personal favorite of the bunch, this jet black Fernet is made in, of all places, Mexico based on a recipe from the 1860s! Heavy notes of cardamom waft on the nose and continue on the palate, with warm spices, coffee, and a roasted, woodsy overtone. This round and bigger-bodied Fernet isn't exactly sweet, and it's not exactly dry. Well balanced and less mint-heavy than other bottles.
Liquor: Fernet Francisco
From: San Francisco, California
It was only a matter of time before someone in San Francisco launched a Fernet. San Francisco-based partners Ben Flajnik and Max Rudsten are behind the newest Fernet on the market, Fernet Francisco, which debuted this past March. For their base spirits they source non-GMO corn and local brandy, infused with local rhubarb, gentian root, orris root, cardamom bay leaves, cinnamon, orange peels, peppermint, spearmint, angelica root, German chamomile, plus another secret ingredient. This spicy Fernet is less aggressively minty and ends with a bitter finish.
Liquor: Letherbee Fernet
From: Chicago, Illinois
Letherbee Distillers produces a swell line of distillates, and among them is this complex-flavored, modern take on Fernet. Hints of pepper and pine are met with spearmint, cinnamon, coffee, and chocolate. This balanced bottle packs great acidity and just a hint of sweetness.
Producer: Tempus Fugit
Liquor: Fernet Angelico
On the market for the last two years, Fernet Angelico is based on an old Italian recipe (purchased in 1930 from a defunct Italian distillery) that involves aloe, saffron, quinquina, gentian, anise, angelica, mint, and myrrh. This spicy, smokey, woodsy Fernet smells of citrus on the nose, and channels a unique savory flavor reminiscent of burning incense and wood. It's naturally-hued (some Fernets have added artificial color) and well-balanced between bitter and sweet.
Producer: Giorgio Riveti
Liquor: Contratto Liqueur Fernet
With a slightly lower ABV (30 percent) than other Fernets, the first Contratto recipes were produced in the 1890s as a base for vermouth, and continuously made until the wine fell out of style in the 1960s. In 2007, Italian winemaker Giorgio Riveti (La Spinetta) revived the brand as vermouth and Fernet. The Contratto Fernet sold today is based on one of the brand's original recipes, made of a base distilled from Barbera d'Alba grapes macerated with 33 herbs and spices, which include myrrh, chamomile, saffron, fennel, aloe, anise, ginger, mint leaves, clover, rhubarb, licorice, cinnamon, lemon balm, nutmeg, juniper, and more. Perhaps because of its lower ABV and sweetness level, Contratto drinks more like a classic sweeter amaro, yet is lighter in body and not at all syrupy. Note menthol on the nose, and an overall smoothness. This liqueur is for the Fernet fan seeking less bracingly bitter flavors.
Liquor: Fernet Amaro
The Luxardo family of products extends far and wide beyond cherries. Luxardo makes a handful of amari and liqueurs, including this here Fernet, the recipe for which was developed in 1889 using 15 botanicals inclusive of licorice, cardamom, gentian, and saffron. Of all the Fernets we tried for this piece, the Luxardo channeled a dry, woodsy and minty taste with medium bitterness.
Producer: Paolo Lazzaroni E Figli
Liquor: Fernet Amaro
The Lazzaroni family might be best known for inventing the amaretto cookie in the 18th century, but they're also responsible for a Fernet. Expect a more classically-styled amaro, not dissimilar from Branca, aromatic and palate-strippingly dry.