“Fernet is the best liquor you’re (still) not yet drinking.”
In Argentina it’s mixed with Coca-Cola as the country’s favorite cocktail, as well as its preferred hangover cure. In San Francisco, where it’s been hugely popular since the 1920s, it’s downed straight with a ginger ale chaser. In Italy, where it originated, it’s enjoyed after a meal as a digestif, often mixed with coffee or espresso. And at Dive Bars, it’s our new libation obsession.
Fernet – pronounced ‘fair-nay’ – is an amaro (Italian for ‘bitter’) liqueur made from a grape alcohol base infused with a mixture of dozens of botanicals that include rhubarb, sage, bay leaves, saffron, chamomile, ginseng, cardamom, aloe, myrrh, orange peel, turmeric, aloe, ginseng, tree barks and mint oils. It’s a cousin of Campari, but fernet – which is less sweet and can be often be around 80 proof – is its own taste entirely. And because every distiller has their own recipe, each fernet will have it’s own unique character.
Fernet Branca is the original and still best-known, distilled in the Milan from a KFC-like secret blend of 27 herbs and spices devised in 1845 by ‘self-taught apothecary’ Bernardino Branca. In a tradition enjoyed by snake-oil salesmen worldwide, Branca co-credited a fictitious Swedish physician named ‘Dr. Fernet’ with his product’s formula in order to bolster its ‘miraculous’ health benefits. In fact, because of its ‘medicinal properties’, Fernet Branca was one of the few alcoholic beverages considered legal during American prohibition. It may smell intense, but its deeply herbal taste is surprisingly complex and refreshing, while millions still swear by its purported healing powers. Fernet Leopold, from an award-winning family-owned distillery in Denver, is a handcrafted small-batch fernet aged in Chardonnay barrels that delivers nice notes of honeysuckle and mint. Salmiakki Dala is a really interesting Scandinavian fernet – made in Iceland by the American cocktail-culture trendsetters Bittermens – whose strong salty licorice root flavor is a tribute to the Swedish candies called ‘Salmiakki’. Tempus Fugit Fernet Del Frate Angelico is a nearly black small-batch fernet that shines with light mint, menthol, smoke and saffron. Letherbee Fernet, from the very cool Chicago distillers, can be intense at first, but smooths out with nutmeg, cinnamon and eucalyptus notes. Arcane Fernet is from a small-yet-badass distillery in Sunset Park, Brooklyn – they also make Lone Wolf, a malt whiskey vacuum-distilled from craft beer – that rose to the challenge of crafting a truly unique fernet. Theirs boasts a gentle herbal flavor with delicate notes of peppermint and citrus, along with the smooth but serious kick of a neutral alcohol distilled in-house.
All six of these fine fernets are available at our Dive Bars. Try one straight, on the rocks, mixed with a club soda or Coke, or in an Old Fashioned. It may be an acquired taste for some, but it’s absolutely a great summer cocktail and/or after-dinner drink. Life is better when you embrace the bitter.