In Italy, Fernet Branca has always been an institution, especially among the older generation: both my grandmothers had a penchant for it and for those little, fernet-flavored sugar candies we, for some reason, call “dissetanti” (thirst quenching) in Italy.
Maybe it is because of its association with those generations, always elegant, always full of charm, that I personally tended to consider Fernet a drink of other times, until it came out during a conversation with a bunch of friends over dinner that we were all, more or less secretly, Fernet lovers. Aromatic and bitter, it is refreshing served on ice and fantastic in cocktails and, according to the literature, it has been getting trendier and trendier around the world, USA included.
Mr. Branca used 27 ingredients coming from all over the world, including herbs, spices and roots and created a recipe which still remains a secret
Interviewed by CNBC, a spokesperson for Branca, fernet first, iconic producer, underlined how its very bitter taste is very much appreciated among culinary trendsetters, tired of over-sugary drinks. Even professional bartenders, he added during his CNBC chat, are keen of customers ordering Fernet: no frills, full of character and - here it comes again - with an undeniable charm. They call it “the bartender’s handshake,” because ordering it means being accepted into the Elysium of high quality drinks’ connoisseurs.
Fernet Branca, though, does not only taste good, it also has some curious anedoctes hidden between a fragrant page of its history and the other: interestingly, one of the most amazing among them relates to the United States and to the harsh times of Prohibitionism, but its origins and the mystery still surrounding its recipe are deign of the best written of suspense novels, too.
First things first, though: it is time to step back in time and set our eyes on pre-unification, 1845 Milan. It is here the adventure of Fernet begins.
Around since 1845, Fernet Branca has become an iconic amaro around the world
Bernardino Branca, his wife, a doctor or a monk: who created Fernet?
Mr Branca was a Milanese chemist, Maria Scalia, his wife, a well known herbalist. Father Angelico Fernet may have been a French monk and Mr Fernet a Scandinavian doctor. Some real people, some possibly created by a figment of people’s imagination, but all with one thing in common: the invention of Fernet.
It was 1845 when Mr Branca began production of his fernet, created with a medical aim in mind, that of fighting malaria (it contains sources of quinine) and cholera. Some believe an elusive Swede, doctor Fernet, helped him in concocting the mythical elixir, others that his collaborator was a french monk, Angelico, already known for other herbal remedies. Angelico may have ailed from Burgundy, an area where the surname Fernet was - and still is - fairly common.
In truth, Mr Branca’s most probable collaborator was his wife Maria, an herbalist herself, as we said, who may have lent her expertise in the laboratory. A local, family affair, in the end, just as the name, which may come from the Milanese expression “un fer net”, a clean iron, the instrument used to stir the ingredients together in those first decades of the liquor’s production.
Branca used 27 ingredients coming from all over the world, including herbs, spices and roots, and created a recipe which still remains a secret: even today, 5 of these ingredients are known exclusively by the Brancas in charge of the company, who are responsible for their preparation,: this places in a room where they and only they are allowed to enter. Among the other 22, known ingredients are gentian, chamomile, angelica, quinine, chinese rhubarb, myrrh, peppermint saffron, colombo root and ireos. Some are percolated with hot alcohol, others are soaked in spirit and centrifuged. The infusions obtained need to rest for a full month before being mixed and moved into Slovenian oak barrels for a year-long ageing process.
Prohibitionism, San Fran and the Edoardo Branca’s big bet on the USA
History teaches us that the period between 1920 and 1933 was not particularly happy for Americans who liked their drinks: it was the Prohibitionism era, when recreational sale of alcohol became illegal. If you happened to make a living with alcohol, the United States turned into a bad place to do business in those years, but not for the Brancas. Because it had been created as a medicine, Fernet was registered as such at customs and had always been sold in pharmacies in the US, where it was marketed as a cough syrup. Apparently, it became particularly popular in San Francisco, a place where the liquor remains trendy even today, to the point Edoardo Branca, current head of the family business, has been thinking to use the San Fran connection to expand the brand’s popularity in the rest of the country.
Edoardo declared in a recent interview that his great-grandfather must have been among the few people who did not celebrate the end of Prohibitionism, a time when Branca had virtually no competitors on the market, because alcohol was, well… illegal.
As it often happens for niche products, Fernet became a bit of an artsy drink: mentioned in Francis Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night, and in Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria, winner of the Oscar for best foreign movie in 1957, it was also, in more recent years, Carmela Soprano’s favorite tipple.
Extremely popular in Italy, Fernet Branca has something of a cult status in Argentina, where it is often consumed with coke: the idea seems quite nice, especially now that the hot weather is about to come. Fernet, we said it while introducing it, has a strong, fresh and bitter taste, a true refresher, as highlighted by one of its current Italian tv ads, where a woman drinking it is touched on her back with a piece of ice, creating a connection between the coolness of the latter with that of the former.
Almost free from sugars, Fernet also has another interesting characteristic: it apparently gives no hangover.