You may have heard of Fernet, or Fernet Branca, or have heard of the mysterious Fernet Branca ingredients, some of which are as secret as the famous KFC herbs and spices recipe. So what exactly is Fernet, this bitter black liquor that has whole countries devoted to its charms? Let’s find out.
When someone orders a fernet, they are most often ordering a Fernet Branca, one of the originators of this type of liquor. Like an amaro, fernets are herbal liquors that have very distinctive flavors. Jagermeister is a very popular type of herbal liquor, though is much sweeter than the bitter, sometimes gag-inducing, Fernet Branca. Despite this reaction, the drink is incredibly popular in some parts of the world.
KFC And Brancas
Many people will be familiar with the old Kentucky Fried Chicken secret blend of “11 herbs and spices,” but this isn’t the only closely-guarded secret recipe out there. Fernet Branca ingredients consist of a blend of 27 different spices, only 10 of which are revealed by the company on their website. Of the named spices, saffron is perhaps the most expensive. Due to the difficulty associated with harvesting it, and the tiny nature of saffron, it is actually more expensive than gold on a gram by gram basis!
The popular Fernet shot begins its existence as a medicinal cure-all in the mid-19th-century. Herbalist Bernardino Branca first created the drink as a cure for cholera and as a treatment for menstrual cramps. Since becoming a sought-after recreational drink in the early-20th-century, it has become known as a “bartender’s cure.” Many fans of the liquor claim that sticking only to Fernet during your evening, or having a shot in the morning, will make hangovers a thing of the past.
Just as the First World War was ending prohibition laws against alcohol were passed in the United States. This made making, importing, and imbibing alcohol illegal and set the stage for a huge black market. Fernet Branca, on the other hand, managed to be the only “package liquor legally sold in the States.” The reason for this is that Fernet has always been marketed as medicinal, so it was able to be imported to the United States legally.
The Biggest Consumer
In the United States, San Francisco is undeniably the hub of Fernet Branca fandom. In numerous bars in the city, a Fernet shot is served with a chaser of ginger ale. Lovers of the drink almost unanimously say that their first experience with the drink was rough. One promoter of the liquor says a usual reaction to the first drink of Fernet is “Argh! This is absolutely horrible.” But people keep coming back for more, and as popular as the drink is in San Francisco, it’s nothing compared to one of their neighbors far to the south.
National Drink of Argentina
Early in the 20th-century, Fratelli Branca began exporting their medicinal beverage to Argentina. The legend of Fernet Branca benefits traveled across the Atlantic Ocean and the drink became so popular in the South American country that, in 1923, a Fernet Branca distillery was established in Buenos Aires.
The Buenos Aires distillery was the only Fernet Branca outlet outside of Italy for almost 20 years. In 1932, just before the repeal of prohibition laws in the United States, the company also opened a distillery in New York’s Tribeca neighborhood. Both distilleries were opened to satisfy local demand for the alcohol. Outside of San Francisco, Fernet Branca’s United States popularity peaked in the 1960s. But in Argentina, the Fernet fascination shows no signs of stopping.
The fernet con coca, or Fernet Branca with Coca-Cola, is a hugely popular drink in the South American nation, so much so that it is often called the unofficial drink of Argentina. As with many cocktails, the origin of the fernet con coca, or Fernando, is lost to time, though most aficionados agree that it originated somewhere in the Cordoba region in the 1980s. Other international variants of the drink include one from Germany where the bitter beverage is mixed with Red Bull.
Although the fernet con coca has been a popular drink for 40 years, it’s only recently that the cocktail has been officially recognized by the International Bartender’s Association (IBA). The IBA declared in 2020 that the fernandito had made the exclusive “New Era Drinks” list.
Elixir or Fantasy?
Some consider Fernet Branca to be an elixir, rather than a liquor. An elixir is used primarily for medicinal purposes, which was the original intent of Fernet Branca. And though as a medicine is how the liquor made its way into the United States, it is as a recreational drink that its popularity has soared. So the question “What is Fernet?” has a few different answers. It’s an unofficial drink, a bitter, off-putting shot, and an herbal tonic that might be good for hangovers and period cramps.Whether you decide to explore Fernet Branca benefits as a health tonic or as a “bartender’s handshake,” the consensus is that the first shot is going to be the worst. But according to fans of the drink, once you get over that shock, like the bitterness of coffee or the tannin of red wine, one grows accustomed to and even enjoys, the unique taste of this revered Italian drink.