Four takes on a classic Italian bitter.
In The Dark Knight Rises, loyal butler Alfred fantasizes about Bruce Wayne’s retirement from the cape. “Every year, I took a holiday. I went to Florence—there’s this cafe, on the banks of the Arno. Every fine evening, I’d sit there and order a Fernet-Branca,” he said. “I had this fantasy, that I would look across the tables and I’d see you there, with a wife and maybe a couple of kids. You wouldn’t say anything to me, nor me to you. But we’d both know that you’d made it, that you were happy.”
For many, that’s pretty much the only time they’ve heard of the stuff. Yet, this svelte bottle seems to sit on every bar in town, its contents a dark mystery to us all. Its vintage-style label depicts an eagle seemingly escaping the earth’s orbit with a bottle of the stuff in its clutches (presumably there’s another eagle on that bottle, and another, and…).
In the name of investigative journalism, The Mix recently made acquaintance with a bottle of Fernet. Here’s the low-down.
Fernet-Branca is a brand of Fernet, an amaro—an Italian aromatic bitter low enough in alcohol content to drink, unlike other cocktail bitters only used a few drops at a time. You might be familiar with other amari like Nonino, Ramazzotti and Montenegro. Like all bitters, it is made using a secret blend of herbs and spices for aroma and bite.
Elderly Italian men swear by Fernet as the perfect digestif, sipping it after meals. Sometimes you’ll see espresso served—or “corrected”—with a shot of fernet. In Argentina, it’s most popular mixed with coke, and in some quarters known simply as “Fernando.”
If you’ve never tasted the stuff, brace yourself. Fernet tastes like an extremely effective medicine. In fact, importers were able to bring it into the U.S. during prohibition for that exact reason. Bitter, minty, herbal, and complex, it’s an acquired taste; but that complexity makes it a great addition to cocktails. As Michael Dietsch of Serious Eats says, “What Fernet Branca needs in a cocktail is a sparring partner, an ingredient that complements its strengths and masks its weaknesses.” It plays nicely with a solid rye whiskey, a juniper-forward gin, or anything with real character.
Here are three stellar examples of Fernet done right:
Oddly enough, the cocktail named after our fair city isn’t as popular within Canada as it is internationally. If you’ve never had one, think of it as a slightly more bitter Old-Fashioned. 416 Snack Bar (181 Bathurst St.) serves theirs on the rocks. It’s particularly tasty accompanied by an order of dumplings.
Northwood (815 Bloor St. W) spends its days as a cafe before morphing into a bar at night. It’s no surprise, then, that you’ll find some exceptional coffee-driven concoctions here. L’Ecclisse, prepared with their painstakingly crafted cold brew, balances the fernet with triple-sec, vanilla liqueur, and a pinch of salt. It’s creamy like a pint of stout, minty like an After Eight. Have it for dessert.
LoPan (503 College St.) and its downstairs big brother DaiLo offer up the Soucheng Moon, a snappy little elixir of a thing. Named after the song “Silver Moon,” Fernet finds its match in rye. Chartreuse, pine syrup, and bitters round out the flavour. While you’re there, go for the “KFC” popcorn tofu and truffle-fried rice.
If you’re looking for something to make at home, here’s a winter-appropriate Toronto recipe, complete with cloves and cinnamon.
2 oz rye whiskey
1/2 oz fernet branca
1/2 oz simple syrup
2 dashes bitters
1 cinnamon stick
In a mixing glass, stir all the ingredients over ice. Strain into a chilled tumbler.