A dark spirit rises
"More than a cocktail––it has miraculous powers that can bring you back from the edge." Photo: hugo chang
Fernet Branca – it's an evil looking, intensely bitter, Italian digestive liqueur. But that's not stoping this pungent potable from developing a cult following on Australian shores.
With a polarising taste that's the envy of Vegemite and salty liquorice combined it is something of a wonder that Fernet Branca has any popular appeal at all. Lucky for Fernet then that it has some pretty serious admirers. Alfred Pennyworth (Michael Caine) in Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight Rises orders it by name and if Batman's butler can't convince you to try it some of Australia's top chefs and bartenders will.
Max Greco, bartender extraordinaire from Sydney's award winning cocktail bar Eau De Vie (229 Darlinghurst Road, Darlinghurst) is a Fernet fan, though he admits that his relationship with it wasn't all plain sailing.
"I first tried Fernet in Italy when I was about 18 or 19 and I have to admit that I thought it was disgusting," comments Greco. "I come from the south and we like it sweet down there."
Fernet Branca, which is often describe described as tasting like black liquorice-flavoured mouthwash, derives its unique flavour profile from its proprietary recipe that includes 27 herbs and spices blended with a grape-based spirit. Including peppermint oil, rhubarb, cape aloe, saffron and cinchona bark, Fernet is lauded by supporters for its ability to aid digestion and cure hangovers or kill you in the process.
Fratelli Branca (literally 'Branca Brothers'), was founded in Milan in 1845 by Bernardino Branca. The company's first and flagship product is Fernet Branca and to this day - after 160 years of distilling - it's still a family run business. In fact, Count Eduardo Branca (just 28 years old) - a sixth generation Branca - visited Australia in September to meet with the local importer of Fernet Branca and host a master class for local bartenders.
Greco, who assisted Eduardo Branca at the Sydney tasting was re-introduced to Fernet Branca whilst bartending in London in the early 2000s as it was often handed to him by other bartenders as a shot. "It took me a while to understand and appreciate it. It has to be Italy's most unusual spirit," says Greco. "I think in Australia when I arrived it wasn't really around. But thanks to bartenders who are fans I've seen it appear in more and more bars over the last three to four years."
Fernet Branca isn't new to Australian shores though. One G.B. Modini, an Italian gunsmith and cutler started selling the stuff from his store on George Street, Sydney in the 1870s. Modini even advertised that he was the colonies' sole importer of Fernet Branca in the Sydney Morning Herald for over 25 years.
Modini had stockists throughout New South Wales, Queensland and South Australia. And his advertising copy declared that Fernet "stimulates the appetite, corrects the inertia and the stomach - promotes, cures spleen bowel complaints... invigorates the general system."
Elvis Abrahanowicz, co-owner and chef at Bodgea and Porteño restaurants in Surry Hills, has long been fond of the drink. "Fernet is in some of my earliest memories growing up," he says. "There was always a bottle on every table sitting there and being passed around after meal times."
Abrahanowicz might have grown up in Australia but he often visited his parents' homeland of Argentina, where Fernet Branca is loved as the national drink. It's no surprise that Argentina loves Fernet Branca with up to 50 per cent of the population claiming Italian ancestry. Whilst Fernet Branca was shipped around the world in the late 19th century (including coming via South America to Sydney) Argentina's love affair with the liquid took off after 1907 when Fratelli Branca established a production facility in Buenos Aries. Argentinians consume about 25 million litres of it a year.
"I've always loved it and enjoyed the flavour of it, but the palate is different over there - they are more used to bitter flavours like chinotto for instance," adds Abrahanowicz. "Peoples' palates are changing over here too... If you tried to give it to someone a few years back they might have punched you in the face. Not that it hasn't always had some following over here."
Abrahanowicz isn't the only chef to have a penchant for Fernet. Fergus Henderson of London's St. John is a famous supporter of this Italian digestive tonic. Henderson has even created a Fernet cocktail of sorts called the "Dr. Henderson" which combines two parts Fernet to one part crème de menthe. The mixture looks like swamp water, but is a grand cure for overindulgence. Henderson describes the beverage on newness.com as "more than a cocktail––it has miraculous powers that can bring you back from the edge."
So next time you're dining experience sees you overindulge pass over the espresso and the peppermint tea and reach for Fernet. Love it or despise it will be an experience you won't soon forget.
How to enjoy Fernet Branca
Fernet Branca is often considered to be a digestive liqueur but once mixed with tonic, cola, chinotto or in cocktails it can be equally effective as an aperitif.
"I like to drink mine neat," says Elvis Abrahanowicz. "And not just a shot I'm talking half a glass full. Sometimes I'll take it with ice or slightly chilled, but not too cold. In Argentina it's mixed with cola, but after a meal it's served straight with ice on the side."
For Max Greco the miraculous powers of Fernet are best enjoyed brutally cold. "It's got to be taken straight from the freezer and given a little shake," explains Greco, though he also enjoys a classic cocktail called a Hanky Panky from London's Savoy Hotel. Here's the recipe for you to give a whirl:
60ml London Dry Gin
30ml Sweet vermouth
5ml Fernet Branca
Add all ingredients into a mixing glass or shaker. Fill with ice and stir for a good 25 seconds. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass and garnish with a wide swath of orange peel squeezed between thumb and forefinger over the drink to release the aromatic oils from the peel.