Sunday 18 January 2015

Don't be afraid of Fernet-Branca

Fernet-Branca is one of those cocktail ingredients from the dawn of time, when there wasn’t too much to choose from. Many younger people may never have heard of it, and those who have often roll their eyes and dismiss it as rocket fuel, but to the best of my knowledge it was never out of production and does seem to be experiencing a cautious revival. It was specified in one of the cocktail recipes prepared for us by Brian Silva at the Excelsior Club events that we did last year, which is what got me thinking about it.

Fernet is a style of bitter infusion that was peddled as a tonic and cure-all in early advertisements; the name comes from Dr Fernet, an imaginary Swedish Man of Science originally billed as co-creator, who was claimed to have lived to more than 100 thanks to the restorative powers of his tincture. Fernet is traditionally drunk as a digestif. Apparently they are keen on it in Argentina (where they drink it with cola), and in the US it’s particularly popular in San Francisco, which accounts for 25% of the country’s consumption.* Fernet-Branca (which I have to admit is the only Fernet I have encountered, though there are other brands) was created in 1845 in Milan by Bernardino Branca and went on to be produced by Fratelli Branca at their distillery. I had idly assumed that it was an aromatised wine, so I was surprised to see that it is actually 39% ABV and thus has more in common with something like Gammel Dansk than vermouth. In fact some see it as an alternative to Angostura Bitters, and indeed the label proudly calls it “The international bitters”.

Of course the recipe, as is traditional with these things, is a secret, known only by the firm’s president, Niccolò Branca, who personally measures out the ingredients. But the back label calls it “an infusion from a unique blend of selected blossoms and rare aromatic herbs, carefully aged in the historic Branca cellars”. (Specifically, aged for 12 months in wood, according to the Fernet-Branca website.) The site lists myrrh, linden, galangal, chamomile, cinnamon, saffron, iris, gentian, aloe, zedoary, colombo and bitter orange, but it is said that there are fully 27 (or alternatively 40) ingredients, among which rhubarb and red cinchona bark might also number. Rumour has it that production of Fernet-Branca accounts for 75% of the world’s saffron consumption.

A Hanky Panky cocktail
Fernet-Branca is a brown colour (from caramel colouring, I believe) and has a strongly aromatic nose with woody spice underneath. There is mint and also coffee, chocolate, balsam, menthol, sandalwood, sesame seeds… This is carried over on to the tongue but if you expect sweetness (perhaps from the aroma’s similarity to cough medicine) then you are in for a shock as it is quite dry and bitter.

I gather that Fernet-Branca has been gaining popularity as a cocktail ingredient again, as punters become more interested in classic cocktails, drier and more bitter than the long, sweet, fruity cocktails of the 1980s. In a way it doesn’t surprise me that they like it in Argentina, as my taste of classic Argentine cocktails made it clear that the national palate likes a bitter element. Perhaps the best known cocktail containing it in this country is the Hanky Panky, probably the most famous creation of Ada Coleman (see my last post) during her long tenure at the Savoy’s American Bar. The story goes that she created it for Noel Coward’s mentor Sir Charles Hawtrey when he came in one day announcing he was tired and needed something with a bit of pep. He took one sip and announced, “By Jove! That is the real hanky-panky” (an expression which apparently meant sorcery, rather than sexual naughtiness as it did in the US).

Hanky Panky
1½ shots gin
1½ shots red vermouth
2 dashes Fernet-Branca
Shake with ice, strain and garnish with a twist of orange peel

The vermouth and the Fernet merge in an aromatic continuum, with the gin joining in too, depending on how powerful the high juniper presence is in the gin you choose, and it is worth playing around with the quantity of the Fernet to suit your palate. It’s a bracing drink, a perfect pick-me-up or aperitif to stimulate the tastebuds. But the high proportion of vermouth does mean that your bottle needs to be in good condition, not old, oxidised and turning brown.

As it happens, the Savoy Cocktail Book (1930) contains both the Hanky Panky and also the “Fernet Branca Cocktail”, which has exactly the same ingredients but in fiercer proportions: 2 parts gin to 1 part red vermouth to 1 part Fernet-Branca. The book adds, “One of the best ‘morning after’ cocktails ever invented. Fernet-Branca, an Italian vegetable extract, is a marvellous headache cure. (No advt.)” This is a recurring theme—Fernet-Branca’s puissance as a cure of hangover, nausea, cramps, poor digestion, etc, etc.

Meanwhile, Cocktails: How to Mix Them (1922) by Robert Vermeire has a “Fernet Cocktail” that is equal parts Fernet-Branca and either Cognac or rye whiskey, plus a dash of Angostura and two dashes of sugar syrup. I was convinced that I had encountered something similar as a “Corpse Reviver No.1”, but when I looked, most recipes I found under this name were a combination of equal parts Cognac, Calvados and red vermouth. However, eventually in Larousse Cocktails (2005)—which is admittedly often out there on its own—I find a “Corpse Reviver” consisting of 3 parts cognac to 1 part each Fernet-Branca and white crème de menthe. This sounds like it is going to be rather sickly, but in fact it is well balanced, with the liqueur’s sweetness balanced out by the bitter Fernet, creating something like a brandy Old Fashioned with a refreshing minty aromatic pep.

Under Vermeire’s Fernet Cocktail recipe he notes, “This cocktail is much appreciated by the Canadians of Toronto.” There must be something in this as there is also a well-known Fernet cocktail called a Toronto.

A Toronto Cocktail, served on the rocks, though it is sometimes
shaken and strained into a cocktail glass
Toronto Cocktail
2 shots Canadian whiskey
¼ shot Fernet-Branca
¼ shot sugar syrup
(Some recipes add a couple of dashes of Angostura)
Stir with ice, strain and garnish with a strip of orange peel

Although I can find no mention of the origins of this drink, it is pretty primordial in what it is doing—it is a cocktail in the original sense of a spirit augmented by sugar, bitters and/or water—and is essentially the same as Vermeire’s Fernet Cocktail, just with different proportions. It is also similar to the Boulevardier, which uses Campari instead of Fernet for bitterness and red vermouth for sweetness. You also find the Toronto made with American rye whiskey, and sometimes with more Fernet-Branca in the mix (though I’ve not seen it with as much Fernet as Vermeire’s version). To drink, it is much like an Old Fashioned, with the combination of Fernet and whiskey (I used Canadian Club) evoking a chocolate/caramel flavour. I think it highlights the appeal of Fernet-Branca in a cocktail, creating a drink that is both comforting and invigorating at the same time.

Amusingly, on the blog of James Boudreau, a bartender from Montreal, he says that he had to leave Canada before he encountered the Toronto cocktail, as Fernet-Branca was not available in his home country. So it may be that the drink was not created in Toronto, but was so named simply because it used Canadian whiskey. But does this mean that Vermeire was misled when he said that the drink was popular in Toronto, or perhaps that Fernet-Branca used to be available there in the 1920s but had fallen out of fashion by Boudreau’s time?

Meanwhile Brian Silva’s recipe for us was a twist on the (currently hugely fashionable) Negroni:

Negroni Aprés
2 shots gin
1 shot Aperol
½ shot Fernet-Branca
½ shot Amer Picon
Soda (optional)
Add all the ingredients to an iced cocktail shaker. Stir for one minute.
Strain into an iced rocks glass

The name is a reference to Brian’s view of this an a digestif version of a cocktail that is normally an aperitif. I’m not so sure about that myself—the bright, aromatic, bitter-sweet flavours from three different amaros (plus an emphasis on bitter orange flavours) still seem to me to be classic get-the-juices-flowing territory.

Another more modern cocktail that we served recently is one I found on Simon Difford’s website. It goes by the name of Staffordshire Delight which is a pretty awful name, but it is a great drink:

A Staffordshire Delight cocktail
Staffordshire Delight
2 shots golden rum
1½ shots pineapple juice
½ shot Fernet-Branca
½ shot lime juice
½ shot orgeat (almond syrup)
Dash of Angostura Bitters
Shake everything together and strain into an ice-filled glass

This is a complex drink. It can be hard to get the balance right, but it is worth persevering. You clearly get the minty aromatic freshness of the Fernet, its bitterness balanced by the orgeat, the almond notes of which slip into the middle ground, with the rum giving power and the pineapple a silky texture.

Finally, there is another combination that I have encountered more than once, a blend of equal parts Fernet-Branca, lime juice and ginger syrup or liqueur; one recipe added an equal part gin to this (a Fernet Reviver) and another instead an equal part red vermouth (an Eva Peron). On paper you can see how this works, an equal balance of strong sweet, sour and bitter elements—and ginger is a traditional cure for nausea, so we are back in touch with Fernet’s curative background. In practice, however, the Fernet does dominate, although you can taste the other ingredients. It’s certainly warming, with the ginger adding its fire to the Fernet, and the gin version is inevitably drier than the vermouth one. But I have to say that I certainly don’t get the feeling that this drink is doing me any good…

* I gather it is the tipple of choice for bartenders, as an eye-opener when starting a shift—on the grounds that no one will miss the purloined liquor, owing to the dark bottle and the general unpopularity of the contents…

1 comment:

  1. Fernet-Branca is certainly a heavy duty bitter and it is great to see it being lifted out of the almost forgotten to the beginnings of a revival. As an Englishman now living on the East coast of the USA it's true this is popular on the West coast and it has begun to stretch more further afield. I suspect the "drink reps" have been targeting the US for a greater market penetration and so we have started seeing this in more bars on the East coast. Speaking to a few bartenders this is indeed the case and they have been sharing cocktail recipes amongst themselves to promote cocktails to their clientele. For me, I like the Hanky Panky and it's great to see this back in circulation.
    David Schofield