A household name in Italy and a cult hit abroad, Fernet-Branca is one of Italy’s more unusual drinks. Its thick, bitter flavour makes it something of an acquired taste, but those who do like it often love it. Alcohol content seems to vary slightly by country, but the (Italian) bottle I have in front of me has an alcohol content of 43%.
While some other distillers produce their own versions of Fernet, these have never achieved the popularity of the Branca drink, and the word “Fernet” usually implies Fernet-Branca.
What exactly is Fernet-Branca?
Fernet-Branca is a dark, syrupy alcoholic drink similar to an amaro, with a flavour that’s best described as being a cross between medicine, crushed plants and bitter mud. The exact recipe of Fernet-Branca is a secret but the producers, Fratelli Branca Distillerie, do say that it contains 27 different herbs and spices taken from four continents. Among the known ingredients are aloe, gentian root, rhubarb, gum myrrh, red cinchona bark, galanga and zedoary. The rumoured ingredients include saffron.
The history of Fernet-Branca
Fratelli Branca Distillerie claim that the recipe has remained unchanged since its invention in 1845. According to the company, Fernet was created by the “self-taught apothecary” Bernardino Branca. The name “Fernet” belonged to a Doctor Fernet, a fictional Swede with whom Branca originally shared the credit for Fernet, presumably to add authority to claims of the drink’s health benefits. The logo, featuring an eagle poised over a globe, was designed in 1893 by Leopoldo Metlicovitz.
There were many, many health benefits claimed for Fernet-Branca. A newspaper advertisement from 1865 claimed this “renowned liqueur” to be “febrifuge, vermifuge, tonic, invigorating, warming and anti-choleric”, a drink which had furthermore helped the venerable Doctor Fernet (and several members of his family) to live for over a hundred years. It was also marketed as a cure for menstrual cramps. The drink’s numerous medicinal claims came in handy during the American prohibition; as a medicine, Fernet-Branca was still legal.
Today, many people claim that Fernet is an excellent digestive aid and hangover cure.
Other drinks from Fratelli Branca
As well as Fernet, Fratelli Branca produce grappa under the brand names Candolini and Sensèa. They’re also responsible for other drinks including Strevecchio Branca brandy and a liquor called Caffè Borghetti. Fernet-Branca itself is also available in a mint flavour, known as Brancamenta.
Fernet-Branca has gained great popularity in Argentina, where it’s often drunk with cola, and even has it’s own song, ‘Fernet con Coca’ by Vilma Palma. It’s also very popular in San Francisco, where it’s often drunk with a ginger ale chaser.