3 Simple Ways to Learn to Love Fernet-Branca

Fernet-Branca may leave a bitter first impression, but there's a lot to love about this Italian amaro's varied herbal flavors.

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Photo: © Carey Jones

It's dark. It's brooding. Some people mistake it for cough syrup. Yet the Italian amaro Fernet-Branca is a favorite drink of bartenders across the country. In fact, it's sometimes referred to as "The Bartender's Handshake," since bartenders often share shots of it when groups of them get together. It seems like bottles of Fernet-Branca must be given out with bartending licenses, along with fitted vests and mustache-grooming kits.

Though its American popularity is a recent development, Fernet-Branca — which most folks just call "fernet," though there are other fernet brands, too — has quite a history. First produced in Milan in 1845, its precise formula is a tightly guarded secret. But here's what you need to know: It's bitter. Not bittersweet like Campari, but bitter in a spine-tingling, scalp-prickling, smack-you-in-the-face sort of way. But once you get past the intensity, you can start to appreciate Fernet-Branca's varied herbal flavors. Think of these three drinks as your introduction to the world of Fernet-Branca. Start here, and pretty soon you'll be throwing back shots with the mustachioed bartenders at your local watering hole.

Easy: Fernet and Coke

Head down to Buenos Aires, and you'll find that Fernet con Coca is as ubiquitous as Jack and Coke in the States. (Argentina is one of the rare countries on the planet where fernet is actually popular, not just hipster-bartender popular.) Seems weird at first, but the soda's distinctive flavors and subtle spice pair perfectly with fernet.

Instructions: In a tall glass with ice, combine one and a half ounces of Fernet-Branca and four ounces of Coke. Garnish with a lemon wheel.

Intermediate: La Branca

In this drink, we're pairing Fernet-Branca with slightly vegetal añejo tequila and mildly spicy ginger beer, perfect matches for the amaro's herbal-spicy-crazy flavors. If you're still easing into the realm of fernet, this drink is a great gateway.

Instructions: In a cocktail shaker with ice, combine one ounce of Fernet-Branca, one ounce of añejo tequila, and half an ounce of freshly squeezed lime juice. Shake it up and strain into a tall glass with fresh ice. Top with three and a half ounces of ginger beer. Garnish with a lime wheel.

Advanced: Panky Hanky

The American Bar at The Savoy in London has a special place in cocktail history. The Savoy Cocktail Book is a bible of sorts for bartending. The Hanky Panky listed in its pages is a gin-vermouth concoction with just a dash of Fernet-Branca; we're starting with that idea but increasing the fernet by a lot. The vermouth and Beefeater Gin (our brand of choice for this cocktail) smooth out Fernet-Branca's herbal bite — but only a bit.

Instructions: In a mixing glass with ice, combine one and a half ounces of gin, one and a half ounces of Fernet-Branca, and one ounce of sweet vermouth. Add a dash of orange bitters and stir until well-chilled. Strain into a cocktail glass with ice and garnish with a big mint sprig.

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