“Strawberry and fernet are absolutely stunning bedfellows,” says Chicago bartender Tyler Fry. It’s a combination that doesn’t make immediate sense on paper, but bartenders are embracing the unlikely juxtaposition of berry sweetness and stark bitterness in a variety of drink formats, from sours to tropical cocktails and beyond.
At its core, the combination evokes strawberry and mint, but roughed up with a bitter, brooding edge. While the gentler, sweeter Branca Menta is the more obvious companion for berries, some bartenders lean into the eucalyptus and menthol of more austere fernets as well.
Fry’s Rabbit Hole, for example, created for Chicago’s Violet Hour, starts with a split base of bitter, earthy Fernet-Branca and Chicago’s Letherbee fernet, which Fry describes as “a fernet cranked up to 11”; he then swizzles the blend with strawberry syrup and lemon. “It’s an absolute master class for taking two things that are polar opposites: ripe fresh fruit, bitter brooding fernet,” he says. “They mirror each other nicely.”
The fernet-and-strawberry combo isn’t exactly new. Bay Area bartender Matt Fleeger (now of beverage catering company Rye on the Road) recalls a fernet-strawberry drink he created for 15 Romolo at least 10 or 15 years ago. At the time, fernet was regarded as “the bartender’s handshake,” he remembers, and it was a particular obsession among San Francisco bartenders. Gifted a case of Branca Menta minis, Fleeger combined it with a strawberry–balsamic vinegar shrub, sherry and citrus.
“Strawberry lemonade with mint as a garnish, that’s a familiar pairing for some people,” says Fleeger. While fernet on its own can overpower, pairing it with strawberry “created a bridge—it gave it somewhere to go,” he explains. Adding some acidity, a mix of balsamic and white vinegars, balanced the drink. “Instead of the loner in the corner dancing by itself, big and powerful,” Fleeger says, the fernet became a part of a harmonious whole.
Similarly, bartender Devin Chapnick also homed in on Branca Menta’s minty tones for his Second Spring Punch, a Planter’s Punch riff he developed for Denver’s Poka Lola Social Club, which he describes as possessing a “vaguely tropical soda fountain” vibe. He sought a late-spring drink that would remind guests that summer was close, despite Denver’s tendency to get snow even into April and May. “When I was thinking of a ‘hopeful, yet still caught in cold weather’ drink, these flavors came together,” he says. Set against “dark, bitter and mint[y]” Fernet-Branca, a strawberry syrup mixed with pineapple and lime juice added a season-spanning, tropical tone.
Fernet also has the potential to surprise. Instead of a predictable chocolate syrup, Columbus, Ohio, bartender Jesse Hubbard brewed fernet syrup, adding an herbaceous counterpoint to his Passion & Poise, an ice cream sundae–inspired drink made with muddled strawberries and olive oil–washed gin. “The botanicals give fernet an almost medicinal quality, which balances so well with the sweetness of fresh strawberries,” Hubbard explains. “Herbal with the strawberry is a very pleasant experience.”
Although he tried working with other berries—blackberry, blueberry, raspberry—strawberry was the natural companion to fernet, he recalls. “Strawberry was just light enough,” he says. “It had enough sweetness, but doesn’t compete with the fernet,” while also bringing out the spirit’s “subtle underlying sweetness.”
Interestingly, it’s a combo that seems to work in both whispers and shouts. While just a single muddled strawberry and a quarter-ounce of Fernet-Branca add nuanced complexity to Peter Arnone’s Treasure Trove, a sherry-spiked Piña Colada variation, other creators, like Fry, lean all the way in. Not only does his Rabbit Hole double down on the fernet, he urges the strawberry syrup to exhibit “unapologetic fruity deliciousness,” channeling the heady aroma and sweetness of overripe fruit. With two potent ingredients, this is no time to go meek.
“Bashing these opposing things against each other,” he explains, means “you get something bigger than the sum of its parts.”