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Spirits

The Essential New-School Fernet

May 13, 2021

Story: Brad Thomas Parsons

photo: Lizzie Munro

Spirits

The Essential New-School Fernet

May 13, 2021

Story: Brad Thomas Parsons

photo: Lizzie Munro

Meet the producers reimagining amaro’s most brooding style.

For decades, the category of fernet has been synonymous with Fernet-Branca. The family-owned, 176-year-old Milan-based company has a long history of creative marketing and advertising that has landed their bracing and herbaceous elixir in over 160 countries across five continents. The global army of devoted bartenders who trade collectible challenge coins and rock countless tattoos of the brand’s logo attests to the enduring appeal of Fernet-Branca as the “bartender’s handshake” of choice. But Fernet-Branca is not a category unto itself. Historically, there have been other Italian-born expressions of fernet, as well as those crafted in Switzerland, the Czech Republic and Mexico. But even as the bold, medicinal, mint-forward profile of Fernet-Branca remains the touchstone for the category, a rising tide of new-school producers is crafting distinctive variations that challenge the old guard and plumb the depths of the category as a whole.

As an amaro, the question of what makes a fernet a fernet is a tricky one. The category lacks a clear definition and rules for ingredients, production methods and flavor profiles. A few hallmarks, however, include an elevated level of alcohol (typically 39 percent or higher), a dark brown to blackish color, less sugar and a more bitter profile than most amari, and a number of common ingredients, including aloe ferox, chamomile, eucalyptus, mint, myrrh, rhubarb root and saffron.

Since 2011, when Leopold Bros. let the genie out of the bottle with the release of Fernet Leopold Highland Amaro, the first American-made fernet since Prohibition, the category has been exploding. In 2014, Chicago’s Letherbee Fernet gave Malört (a Windy City darling) a run for its money, becoming a staple behind bars across the city, inspiring even more domestic takes on the Italian liqueur. In Washington, D.C., in 2016, Francesco Amodeo debuted his Don Ciccio & Figli Amaro Don Fernet. Its surprisingly low ABV (25 percent) made it inherently approachable while maintaining a pronounced bitterness, with an unexpected twist courtesy of unusual ingredients like ginger and dark chocolate.

Here’s a lineup of new-school fernet that’s reimagining the bitter, bracing category.

Arcane Fernet

Where it’s made: Brooklyn, New York
What’s in it: 27 botanicals, including citrus peel (three varieties), gentian root, hops, licorice root, wild mint
ABV: 39 percent
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The story: Arcane Fernet was born on a bet. “That’s a long story that involves a wager made after a decent night at a favorite bar after a heated discussion about the nature of fernet and art,” recalls Arcane Distilling founder David Kyrejko. On the path to Arcane Fernet’s launch in 2016, Kyrejko turned to local bartenders, bar owners and fernet fanatics to sample dozens of varieties of the bitter liqueur to discern what they liked about it, what they could do without, and how he could make it better. The recipe he developed went through 26 iterations before landing on a formula of “complex bitterness” with a “nice clean finish” that still possessed the medicinal flavor that’s become a calling card for fernet while minimizing its harsh bite. “To give the fernet the needed mouthfeel and sweetness while keeping the sugar content way, way down, I turned to a bit of an old-school candy-making hackery,” says Kyrejko, who holds back the details on just how he’s able to use 30 percent less sugar for the desired sweetness and mouthfeel. “This was developed to be a truly anytime, anywhere, everyone spirit,” says Kyrejko.

(Arcane Distilling has been dormant for the past year and a half due to the build-out of a new facility in Bushwick, Brooklyn, which was delayed due to the pandemic. But according to Arcane Distilling’s Brian Thompson, they’re in the homestretch and hope to relaunch production this summer.)

How it tastes: The burnt caramel color conceals a heavy dose of peppermint, with the complex herbal sweetness of a small-batch root beer leading to a delicately bitter finish. Try it neat as a palate cleanser between drinks or after a meal, or muddled with mint on the rocks.

Eda Rhyne Distilling Company Appalachian Fernet

Where it’s made: Asheville, North Carolina
What’s in it: More than 30 ingredients, including wild mint and an assortment of undisclosed locally grown, foraged organic herbs and botanicals
ABV: 40 percent
[Buy]

The story: Among American-made amari, you would be hard-pressed to find a producer who possesses a stronger sense of regional terroir than the Eda Rhyne Distilling Company in Asheville, North Carolina. In 2018, co-owners Rett Murphy, herbalist and proprietor of Aardvark Farm, and distiller Chris Bower released their Appalachian Fernet, a spirit heavily informed by Western North Carolina distilling traditions, European restorative herbal liqueurs and the “mountain medicine” Bower was prescribed from his Pappy as a boy. “When folks think of the Appalachians and booze, they usually have visions of hillbillies and illicit corn liquor production, which is fair enough, but what most people don’t know is that portions of the run would be set aside for the medicine maker of the community,” says Bower. “The shine would be used to extract and preserve the compounds found in the therapeutic plants that are so abundant here, though we are not trying to make any claims that our product has any medicinal benefits whatsoever.” The eureka moment for Bower came when he made his first batch of homegrown fernet by “wild crafting” an assortment of roots, barks, nuts, flowers, twigs and leaves he soaked in a bottle of moonshine that he tucked away under his kitchen sink for a few weeks. This became the template for a recipe he would tweak over the years, but in the tradition of moonshiners of the area, he remains tight-lipped when it comes to revealing the particulars about the local ingredients used in their formula as well as the production methods. “Our plants are wild, our process is wild and our personality is wild!” says Bower. “But in all seriousness, we strive to create a spirit that captures the smells and tastes of our mountains and the ruggedness of its landscape and people.” 

How it tastes: Oily and inky black with a rich, herbal aroma. Bracing, balanced and botanical-driven with an earthy backbone of bright mint. Bower’s recommendation: “Best enjoyed out of the bottle, around the campfire with friends, after a long day in the woods.”

Faccia Brutto Fernet Pianta

Where it’s made: Brooklyn, New York
What’s in it: 23 organic herbs and botanicals, including aloe ferox, chamomile, chicory root, cocoa nib, fennel seed, gentian, myrrh, nutmeg, peppermint, rhubarb root, saffron and star anise
ABV: 35 percent
[Buy]

The story: Faccia Brutto Spirits launched in March 2020, right at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. “Really amazing timing, right?” says owner and distiller Patrick Miller, an Italian American restaurant industry veteran who worked most recently as the executive chef at Rucola in Brooklyn. He’s also quite aware that the name for his company (an endearing Italian term meaning “ugly face”) is grammatically incorrect, but the irreverent sprezzatura spirit inherent in his logo, label design and the Italian-inspired bitters and amari in his lineup helps stand out in a crowded field. For his Fernet Pianta, inspired by and named for his nonna, Miller has created an accessible gateway example that strives for a sessionable experience in the often-aggressive landscape of knock-back-a-shot fernet. “I’d like to think that it’s an everyman fernet. It’s truly a fernet for people who don’t usually like it, as well as for those who love it,” says Miller. “Balance is the key in cooking and that’s my approach here. I wanted it to be a better experience whether it’s your first time drinking fernet or your thousandth.”

How it tastes: Pleasing layers of wintergreen and peppermint with a mild-mannered bitterness that eases its way to the front of the room to make itself known. Perfect for a post-dinner digestivo. Miller takes his neat or in a half-fernet, half-aperitivo “Ferraro,” or as an icy highball topped with Coke for a Buenos Aires–inspired fernet con coca.

Fred Jerbis Fernet 25

Where it’s made: Polcenigo, Friuli, Italy
What’s in it: 25 botanicals, including bay laurel, chamomile, citrus, gentian, masterwort, peppermint, pine, rhubarb root, saffron and yarrow rested for six months in chestnut barriques
ABV: 34 percent
[Buy]

The story: The only Italian fernet in our mix comes from Federico Cremasco, a former perfumer and bartender better known as “Fred Jerbis” (“Herbs” in Friuliano), producer of small-batch, botanical-driven gin, vermouth, amaro and bitters that are driven by a true sense of place. His Fernet 25—the number refers to the total botanicals used—was released stateside in fall 2019. It features herbs grown in his own garden (“His mom actually waters the garden; it’s not big,” explains David Curiel, national spirits specialist for Oliver McCrum Wines & Spirits, Fred Jerbis’ U.S. importer) and botanicals foraged from the nearby national forest in the Dolomite mountains. The unfiltered blend abstains from the more traditional dark brown to black color characteristic of fernet, instead possessing a light amber composition, courtesy of a six-month aging period in chestnut barriques, a technique that’s typical of wines of the region. “This gives it a gentle amount of wood tannin that seems to really be the glue for some of the botanical aromatics to bond together and evolve as a whole,” says Curiel, who considers Fernet 25 to be “a more delicate interpretation of the category.”

How it tastes: The lightest fernet in the lineup, unfiltered with a burnt-orange hue, offers fragrant floral notes and a warm, well-rounded flavor with a slight astringency (likely from its time in the chestnut barrels). Curiel takes his with a splash of ginger beer and a squeeze of lime: “It gives it a little effervescence and a kick from the ginger and the acid from the limes brings it to life.”

Geijer Spirits California Fernet

Where it’s made: San Francisco, California
What’s in it: 21 botanicals, including artichoke leaves, gentian root, dandelion and wild cherry bark
ABV: 40 percent
[Buy]

The story: What started as a mission to recreate and share his Swedish great-grandmother’s recipe for glögg has turned into a career for Martin Geijer, owner of San Francisco’s Geijer Spirits, which now produces a host of craft liqueurs, including California Fernet, first released in 2018. “My whole motivation for creating a fernet was the fact I wanted a gateway fernet that I could just sit down and enjoy as opposed to shooting it,” says Geijer. “I want the drinker to be able to pick out all the 21 different roots, herbs and barks that go into creating California Fernet.” Those herbs, spices and botanicals are macerated together for six months before filtering. Geijer notes that he’s perfected the ratio of the blend to allow the proper extraction rate for both lighter green and heavier barks. To create a more approachable, cocktail-friendly fernet, he cut the sugar to half the amount of most versions on the market, and leaned on wild cherry bark to add a distinctive “sense of sweetness” to offset its intrinsic bitterness. This permits the California Fernet to be used in more substantial quantities in cocktails, compared to the typical “barspoon of fernet” application. In other words, it’s less of a bully.

How it tastes: Notes of cinnamon and warm baking spices add to a well-rounded, mildly bitter blend whose alcohol content makes itself known but doesn’t hit you over the head. Geijer recommends his cocktail-friendly fernet in a Black Manhattan as well as in tiki applications like La Verité, a play on a Jungle Bird made with Jamaican rum and pineapple juice.

Liquid Riot Bottling Co. Fernet Michaud

Where it’s made: Portland, Maine
What’s in it: 22 ingredients with five types of mint, in a base of organic wheat-based Italian neutral grain spirit that’s re-distilled, charcoal-filtered and sweetened with blue agave
ABV: 41 percent
[Buy]

The story: Liquid Riot, the eclectic New England distillery, brewery and “resto-bar” added an American fernet to their collection in January 2016. Billed as Maine’s first fernet, Fernet Michaud is made without additives, food coloring, artificial ingredients or flavor enhancers. Aside from revealing that a quintet of mint varieties is in the mix, the remaining formula is kept under wraps. Liquid Riot general manager Matthew Marrier confirms, however, that “we source our ingredients organically and locally as much as possible.” Initially, Fernet Michaud spent some time aging in local blueberry wine barrels, but after that source dried up, they’ve been resting the fernet in red wine barrels for seven to nine months. The tall-neck bottle, with its simple label and flip-top stopper, resembles a rustic farmhouse ale more than an Italian-inspired digestivo. But the mint aroma immediately gives it away.

How it tastes: Amber in color with floral honey on the nose. Minty and herbal with a warm kick from the elevated alcohol content and a lingering bitterness. Marrier finds Fernet Michaud particularly friendly in cocktails with lemon or lime juice and recommends swapping for the triple sec in a Margarita (christening it a Fernetarita) or as the base of a bittersweet Fernet Julep.

Rhine Hall Fernet Lola

Where it’s made: Chicago, Illinois
What’s in it: Organic fruit brandy base with 14 herbs, botanicals and spices, including carob bean, cassia, chamomile, eucalyptus, saffron, star anise and vanilla bean
ABV: 37 percent
[Buy]

The story: First released in January 2017, Fernet Lola began as a collaboration with Rhine Hall Distillery and bartenders Jessica Lambert and Mike Ryan, who, inspired by Argentinians’ love of fernet, were looking to create a homegrown example to spotlight at Boleo, a South American–influenced rooftop bar they were opening in Chicago. This limited release soon became a permanent addition to Rhine Hall’s portfolio of eaux de vie. Some of the herbs in Fernet Lola go through an extended maceration in a spirit blend, while others soak in a heat extraction through water before the blending process fully integrates the components in a base of full-bodied brandy. “As a distillery that focuses on eau de vie production, we wanted to be able to push those bright fruit tones while balancing these alongside the complexity and bitterness of the botanical blend and sugar additions,” says Rhine Hall distiller Peter Johnson. “The resulting fernet is slightly sweeter with a smooth, yet bitter finish.”

How it tastes: The aroma of coffee, caramel and chocolate-covered blueberries is followed by a first sip that comes on strong but eases into a mellow richness. Bright pops of eucalyptus come through, but take a back seat to notes of spiced orange. Johnson loves Fernet Lola in a spirit-forward Toronto, as well as stepping in for rum in a bittersweet Daiquiri.

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Tagged: amaro, fernet