Cocktails Featuring Fernet, San Francisco’s Favorite Digestif

On the curious history and restorative powers of the city's favorite, Italian amaro.

San Franciscans are no strangers to fernet, so I won’t waste any time regaling you with tales of its significance to this city. Instead, let’s talk about how you may deploy the syruppy, near-black liquid to whip up cocktail bar-quality drinks at home during quarantine.

But first, before you bust out your cocktail shakers and bar spoons,  a little personal, scientific, and cultural history on this herbaceous liqueur. Lay your Fernet-Branca coins on the table and pour yourself a glass. It’s about to get bitter.

The years that lead to my inevitable turn to a career behind the stick were full of “research” — in the form of making friends already tending bar. Fernet-Branca was a go-to for some of them, though it wasn’t as widely beloved then as it is today. I distinctly recall the first time I was served the stuff: a bartender friend gave me a shot after I asked her what the hell it was that she had just tipped back. She worked at the type of place that sleazy guys would buy her shots in hope of getting hooked up — either with alcohol or otherwise. She took a slug of fernet as opposed to the whiskey that was often offered. She felt other, higher-proof shots would drag her down a bit, whereas the Fernet was almost restorative. I had to try it.

It wasn’t love at first shot by any stretch. However, I was thoroughly intrigued. How could a bitter drink like this stand the test of time?

While some may have internalized the folk wisdom that bitter tastes are a natural warning sign against ingestion — that they are harbingers of poison or harmful chemicals — recent studies have shown that acrid flavors may actually serve as a clue to a biologically beneficial or desirable compound. A 2017 article published by the scientific journal Frontiers in Physiology found that bitter receptors are not only located on the tongue like other taste receptors, but are found in many organ groups throughout the body. The study also concluded that the consumption of bitter food and drink can activate certain immune responses. Further investigation has found that unlike other taste receptors, our bitter receptors degrade over time, which would explain why many children balk at dark chocolate, while adults seek it out: it is truly an acquired taste.

Amaro, the Italian word for bitter, is the classification for post-dinner bitter liqueurs. In today’s cocktail world, amaro also encompasses aperitif-style libations, like Campari and Aperol. All amaro are bitter and sweet and are generally derived from steeping roots, barks, and other flavoring ingredients in alcohol, then cutting them with water and adding sugar. The ingredients chosen are medicinal in use, and the steeping process helped to preserve those properties much longer than the fresh ingredient would last. The practice creating and consuming amaros dates back hundreds of years and became a staple of Italian culture as early as the 16th century. Lore credits Italy’s interest in bitter medicinal drinks to Pope Boniface VIII who cured kidney stone pain with the help of such preparations. Cathrine de’ Medici is said to have consumed amaros both for their flavor and medicinal qualities.

Fernet is a specific style of amaro that is typically more bitter and complex than others in the category. The Fratelli Branca family is the producer of Fernet-Branca, which comes in a handsome green bottle, emblazoned with an eagle spreading its wings atop a globe. Before prohibition in the United States, fernet was already very popular and a common after-dinner drink. During prohibition, due to its medicinal properties, it was still available to purchase and consume, which helped boost its popularity. There are even cocktail recipes from that dark period which use fernet as an ingredient — such as the Hanky Panky from The American Bar in London’s Savoy hotel.

San Francisco’s love for fernet began to bloom long before the “cocktail renaissance” of the late-’90s and early 2000s, but consumption levels certainly spiked at the turn of the millennium, and as of 2011, the San Francisco Bay Area accounted for around 35 percent of all Fernet imported into the United States — at least according to Food Republic.

When looking to use fernet in a cocktail, the home barkeep should keep the liqueur’s herbal qualities in mind. Think about how they might lend a helping hand to spirit bases with strong bouquets, such as gin. The aforementioned Hanky Panky combines gin with sweet vermouth and uses fernet as a flavor enhancer — in much the same way that the Manhattan uses Angostura bitters to compliment its other ingredients.

Simple highball style drinks, like fernet and Coke or fernet and ginger ale are simple and delicious preparations. And of course, fernet can be used in brighter, refreshing drinks as well. All citrus flavors work well in fernet-based cocktails, and I’ve found that it even works great with pineapple. Herb-flavored syrups, like rosemary, can help to round out some notes, but alcohol-based liqueurs like Cointreau, Falernum, or a good Curaçao can really fortify it.

Though my tastes certainly have changed since I had my first taste of fernet more than a decade ago, the intrigue of this Amaro holds me close. After a big meal, it can soothe the gut; with friends, it keeps the party going; and with those who hate it, it makes for excellent shelter-in-place entertainment. There’s really no wrong way to enjoy it.

Hanky Panky
Ada Coleman, The American Bar, 1925

— 1 ½ ounces gin
— 1 ½ ounces sweet vermouth
— 2 dashes Fernet-Branca

Stir with ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Express the oil from an orange peel and over the surface of the drink and garnish with the peel.

The Bitter Beach:
Syrus Fotovat, my house, 2016-ish

— 1 ½ ounces Fernet-Branca
— ½ ounce orange curaçao
— ½ ounce demerara sugar syrup (1:1)
— 1 ounce pineapple juice
— ¾ ounce lemon juice

Shake all ingredients with crushed ice and pour, unstrained, into a tall Zombie style glass. Top with crushed ice and garnish with a pineapple frond.

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