Fernet Is Just As Fun in Cocktails As It Is Solo

This herbal, bittersweet amaro is beloved by bartenders around the world.

A hanky panky cocktail made with fernet
Photo: Brent Hofacker / Getty Images

Ask any cocktail bartender what fernet is, and they'll likely begin telling you about Fernet-Branca: the most iconic fernet on the market that is typically taken as a shot by bar industry professionals. If you ever see a dark brown liquid slide across the bar in a shot glass and get a whiff of mint, it's likely fernet.

What Is Fernet?

Despite Branca's popularity and market share, fernet doesn't just refer to this single cult favorite brand championed by bartenders around the world. Fernet can be defined as a subcategory of amari, or herbal, bittersweet liqueurs known for its mentholated and bitter flavor profile, as well as its punchier ABV (for a liqueur), ranging between 30 to 45%. Most fernets are made from a common set of botanicals such as black aloe ferox, bitter orange, cardamom, rhubarb root and mint, all of which are macerated in neutral grain spirit for various amounts of time before being blended into a final bittersweet elixir. Depending on the brand, the types of herbs and spices used to flavor a fernet can vary, but the ones previously mentioned are considered the core components of this specific digestivo.

Fernet's origins can be traced back to the mid-1800s in Milan, where it was initially enjoyed for its digestive and anti-choleric benefits. Fernet's medicinal characteristics were believed to be so effective that it was prescribed at hospitals and pharmacies in Milan until the 1930s. As a matter of fact, Fernet-Branca was one of the few alcoholic beverages that was still legally available for purchase during Prohibition, as the brand adjusted its secret recipe to avoid falling victim to America's strict alcohol laws (the Italians know how to hustle, that's for sure).

While Fernet Vittone is known to be the original fernet brand created in 1842, predating the genesis of the popular Fernet-Branca by three years, it was Branca that propelled the category into pop culture through its savvy marketing and advertising campaigns in the 1900s, firmly establishing itself as the go-to fernet (you may have even seen some prints of the old ads at various bars or antique shops you've visited).

In the 1870s, fernet (read: Branca) made its way to Argentina as droves of Italians immigrated to the South American country. The dark, bittersweet and minty liquid quickly became a hit with locals, with demand for the beloved Fernet-Branca so high that by 1941 the brand's parent company Branca-Fratelli opened a production facility in Buenos Aires to craft the proprietary recipe. By 1982, the plant was relocated just outside of the country's capital to keep up with the volume in-demand, and remains the only facility of its kind outside of Milan. By the 1990s, fernet found a soulmate in Coca-Cola (also known as fernet con cola), a mixed drink that was, and still is, so popular with Argentineans that it's considered the country's unofficial national drink.

The "Bartender's Handshake"

In the U.S, fernet didn't achieve cult-like status until the 2000s once craft cocktail culture took hold, and San Francisco bartenders seemingly randomly took a liking to the stuff. (Rumor has it that it became popular among bartenders as they could sneak a sip of fernet from the bottle on the back bar without the bar owners knowing because nobody would drink it, and you couldn't see through the dark bottle as it became empty) The mentholated Italian amari quickly became the preferred shift drink of San Francisco bartenders, and that love for fernet spread like wildfire throughout the national bar industry as bartenders would greet, or bid adieu to friends and colleagues with a shot of fernet (termed the "bartender's handshake").

Now, there's even a Fernet-Branca coin that is given to a select few bartenders by Fernet-Branca's brand ambassadors; and with that coin a game can be played if two or more people within a group possess one. When out drinking: one of the coin-bearers can lay their branded coin on the bar to call for a round of Fernet-Branca. Everyone else in the group must do the same. Whomever doesn't present their coin, they buy that round. And if everyone presents coins, the challenger loses their bet and must pay for the round themself.

Fernet Brands to Try Other than Fernet-Branca

Aside from the iconic Fernet-Branca brand, other producers have entered the market within the last decade as the bittersweet liqueur's popularity has blossomed. Brands such as Tempus Fugit (Switzerland), Fernet-Vallet (Mexico), Faccia Brutto (Brooklyn), and Falcon Spirits Fernet Francisco (Richmond, California) are a few of the other exceptional fernets available to bartenders and consumers. Each brand expresses its own unique flavor profile and character depending on the herbs, spices and barks used to flavor the spirit, in addition to the varying production methods.

How to Drink Fernet

In the grand scheme of alcoholic beverages, fernet is admittedly niche and not everyone's cup of tea due to its bitterness. Your first sip may be off-putting; in fact, that's probably to be expected. But the second sip, or shot, might just have you hooked. But before diving into the deep end of bittersweet liqueurs, try it in a cocktail first. You can never go wrong with a proper Hanky Panky, which calls forgin, sweet vermouth, and Fernet-Branca, but when in doubt, fernet con cola it out. The latter might just be your gateway drink to loving fernet like a seasoned cocktail bartender, but there's only one way to find out.

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