The first record of sale of Fernet-Branca in the United States was in San Francisco in the late 1800s—wherever waves of Italian immigrants settled, bottles of Fernet-Branca would follow. Nearly 150 years later, that same city played a pivotal role in Fernet’s modern success story. Testing your mettle with the undeniable shock value of a shot of Fernet—which comes on strong, with notes of eucalyptus, peppermint, candy cane and mentholated cough drop—was a part of the inside-baseball allure of the “bartender handshake” within the Bay Area hospitality industry. But as Fernet settled into the bartender arsenal and became a more frequent ingredient in modern cocktails, its value has shifted from its brawny reputation to a more nuanced appreciation.
But the role of Fernet—and amaro in general—in cocktails is a fairly modern pursuit. There’s the Hanky Panky from the early 1900s and the Toronto (first called a “Fernet Cocktail” in 1922, dubbed the current name in 1948), both of which contain only a scant amount of Fernet-Branca, from two dashes to a quarter-ounce, respectively. And though Fernet’s role as a cocktail ingredient has certainly evolved from more restrained applications to a full-fledged base spirit, there’s still room to appreciate its potent allure in small doses. New-look cocktails that feature Fernet in unforgettable cameo appearances include Toby Maloney’s complex Negroni variation Eeyore’s Requiem, wine-based drinks like Stephanie Teslar’s Black Mamba, and even frozen drinks like Jeffrey Morgenthaler’s Blended Grasshopper.
Fernet-Branca, however, didn’t get its big, bold, barrel-aged notoriety by being modest. Damon Boelte’s Hard Start, a 50/50 shot composed of Fernet-Branca and Brancamenta (similar to Fernet but with a lower ABV, more sugar and a bigger dose of peppermint oil), created in Brooklyn’s Carroll Gardens, has traveled the world, spreading from a house shot at the now-closed Prime Meats to in-the-know Brooklyn bars and beyond. Another of Boelte’s popular Fernet-inspired creations was The Waterfront, a (very) bitter highball made with lime, mint, ginger beer and two full ounces of Fernet-Branca and one ounce of Brancamenta. “It features the most Fernet of any cocktail to date,” boasts Boelte. “Soon after its launch, we realized that it needed a quick verbal disclaimer to let our customers know what they were getting into,” he says.
While there are dozens of other expressions in the fernet category, from newly imported Italian exports to fernet made in Mexico, the Czech Republic and the United States, for many bartenders the iconic, and distinctive, profile of Fernet-Branca is symbolic of the category itself. “I always try and consider not just what an ingredient tastes like, but how it sits on the palate and what energy it brings,” explains Chris Elford of Navy Strength and Trade Winds Tavern in Seattle. “I think most would agree Fernet brings a decidedly dark energy, so we have a choice of intent—do we pair that darkness with something fun and light or do we push it in with other brooding ingredients?”
In either case, a bartender’s ability to fine-tune the potency of Fernet is key, otherwise it can strong-arm a cocktail away from any sense of balance. “Fernet is something magical that you either love to hate or hate to love,” says Hayley Wilson, a bartender at Maine’s Portland Hunt + Alpine Club, who credits co-owner Trey Hughes with helping guide her in making Fernet-based cocktails. “Trey taught me that Fernet is a bully, so lean into it. Use it with other ingredients that can stand up to Fernet and not get lost,” she recalls. “If you want to make a Fernet drink and don’t know where to start, play to its mint and saffron core and go from there. That is the best advice I’ve received when working with this stronghold of a product.”
In their pop punk music–inspired pop-up, Jimmy Drinks World, Wilson and her husband Zachary Wilson take a cue from the classic Fernet & Coke for an inspired Fernet & Mexican Coke Jell-O shot in which they’ve managed to maintain carbonation (like many amaro makers, the Wilsons keep the recipe close to the vest). But for a more traditional take on a Fernet cocktail, Wilson’s Color in Your Cheeks pays tribute to the flavors of a New England autumn. “Fernet is the star here, supported by Vermont maple syrup and Laird’s Applejack brandy to create a silky-smooth sour with a bitter bite on the end,” she says.
Grand Army beverage director Robby Dow considers Fernet-Branca a guiding light for the bar, co-founded by Fernet evangelist Boelte, and the team there employs a three-pronged approach to using the ingredient. First, it’s incorporated as a modifier in classic builds or seasonal house creations, applied as a quarter-ounce pour, a barspoon or dashed out. “Fernet-Branca may be a bit more nuanced in this case, but still surely drives the ship even in small quantities,” says Dow. Second, it’s the star of the show in the form of a split base or the primary ingredient in an amaro-forward Buck or Piña Colada riff. “The key is using full-flavored ingredients to stand up to the larger quantity of Fernet, like overproof Jamaican rum, bourbon or rye,” Dow explains. And finally, it’s a fine boilermaker, with a Hard Start riding shotgun to a “crispy cold” can of Narragansett, a Miller High Life bottle or even a Basque cider.
The bar’s most recent summer menu, inspired by the oeuvre of actor Nicolas Cage, featured three Fernet-based drinks as eccentric as the actor himself. The National Treasure was a bitter julep, composed of their Hard Start base matched with Wild Turkey 101 and a bit of PX sherry. Willy’s Wonderland, inspired by the frozen Irish coffees of Molly’s at the Market and Erin Rose in New Orleans, further cooled things down with its blend of Brancamenta, mezcal and a housemade Guinness syrup (“smoky, minty and super tasty,” says Dow). One of the breakout hits, however, was The Vampire’s Kiss, a Kalimotxo riff that took the classic Spanish combination of red wine and Coke in a new direction with the addition of Fernet-Branca and the bitter vermouth Punt e Mes. After first trying Cynar, Averna and Braulio, Dow and Grand Army head bartender Ally Marrone realized that the missing element all along was Fernet-Branca. “Sometimes you just find your way home,” says Dow.