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A beginner's guide to fernet, the bitter Italian spirit

An Italian speciality and an Argentinian obsession, this herby amaro is cult favourite among bartenders the world over.

By The Thinking Drinkers
Published 27 Jun 2022, 06:04 BST
The most famous fernet is Fernet-Branca, a drink that has cult status among career cocktail-slingers.

The most famous fernet is Fernet-Branca, a drink that has cult status among career cocktail-slingers.

Photograph by Alamy

Tell me, after the Aperol spritz and the negroni, what’s the next ‘cool’ Italian drink we should be ordering?

Well, ask any bartender worth their rim salt and they’ll point you in the direction of fernet — a seriously bitter type of grape-based Italian amaro, made with a myriad of herbs and spices, aged in oak and, apparently, reputedly great at curing hangovers.

The word ‘fernet’, it’s believed, derives from the Milanese term ‘fer net’, meaning ‘clean iron’ — a reference to a hot iron plate used in the liqueur-making process back in the 1840s. And while Italy boasts a number of well-regarded fernets, such as Luxardo, Martini and Nardini, there are also Eastern European alternatives and a number of ‘new world’ versions, courtesy of the micro-distilling scene in the US.

However, by far the most famous fernet is Fernet-Branca, a drink that commands cult status among career cocktail-slingers. It’s the drink most often associated with the ‘bartender’s handshake’ — the name given to the free shot of booze bartenders traditionally offer their fellow professionals. It even boasts its own ‘currency’ — branded coins slammed down by bartenders on bar tops the world over as proof of their trade.

If bartenders like it, it must be nice?

Not necessarily. Fernet-Branca is something of an acquired taste. The nose conjures up a musty old TCP-soaked, oak apothecary cabinet, while the first sip feels like the 30-odd herbs and spices are having a giant cartoon brawl in your mouth — a massive cloud of dust with assorted fists, feet emerging from it at various angles. It’s blisteringly bitter, fiercely medicinal and totally menthol — with earthy antiseptic notes of prunes and liquorice and a damp attic finish.

You’re not selling it to me. Can I have another Aperol spritz?

Come on, persevere. Fernet devotees insist that, like a truly epic album or a classic novel, its greatness doesn’t reveal itself immediately. It requires investment.

Besides, some say it’s good for you. It was even stocked in hospitals, apparently. As well as claiming it aided digestion, Fernet initially targeted its advertising at women — billing the drink as a way of easing menstrual pain. It also halts the ageing process, relieves anxiety and heals everything from tummy aches to cholera, if you believe the hype. Which you really shouldn’t.  

Does anyone drink it for fun?

Yes, millions of Argentinians. Three-quarters of all the Fernet-Branca consumed globally is drunk in Argentina, where Fernet with Coca-Cola (‘fernet con coca’) is hailed as the national drink. After arriving with 19th-century European immigrants, it boomed in the 60s and 70s amid claims that it could prevent hangovers. Argentina still remains home to the only fernet distillery outside of Italy.

Three to try

1. Asterley Brothers Britannica London Fernet

Two English brothers have given a Sicilian family recipe (sourced through marriage) a south London twist — using London porter among a list of ‘botanicals’, including cacao nibs, myrrh and chocolate malt.

2. Fernet Francisco Ruibarbo Bitters

Forged from a San Franciscan friendship first formed over a shot of fernet this rhubarb-inspired riff on their flagship Fernet Francisco boasts 12 botanicals and, they claim, a wisp of fresh local fog.

3. Tempus Fugit Fernet del Frate Angelico

Updating an old Italian recipe from a long-shuttered distillery, this Swiss fernet is anything but neutral. More savoury than most, it’s smoky, spicy and smooth with a mellow menthol kick.

Three-quarters of all the Fernet-Branca consumed globally is drunk in Argentina, where Fernet with Coca-Cola (‘fernet con coca’) is hailed as the national drink. 

Photograph by Getty Images

Where to drink it?

The R Bar, San Francisco
San Franciscans drink more fernet per capita than any other population in the US, and this awesome, friendly neighbourhood dive bar claims to be the city’s biggest seller of the bitter black stuff.

St John Restaurant, London
Owner and legendary chef Fergus Henderson is a passionate proponent of fernet, both as a pick-me-up (he often starts the day with one) and as a digestif — cutting through his famously carnivorous, nose-to-tail cuisine.

La Ferneteria, Buenos Aires
This uber-cool, Italian-accented restaurant and cocktail bar in the city Palermo area is the place to go for fernet con coca, as well as more than 30 different fernet styles and mixer combinations.

Published in Issue 16 (summer 2022) of Food by National Geographic Traveller

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