Man, I tell you, nothing scares some people more than the idea of Fernet Branca, and since this is nearly Halloween, I think it's fitting to be scary.
A fernet is an amaro, a bitter, herbal Italian liqueur, and Fernet Branca is a specific brand of fernet, even more bitter than most of the rest, and certainly an acquired taste. Other fernets are out there, of course, and we did a rundown of them a while ago. But Fernet Branca is the most famous, for better or worse, and it's the one most likely to appear in cocktail recipes. The bartender Michael Neff once referred to it as "mouthwash with delusions of grandeur." Whenever we run an article about Fernet Branca, people seem to line up to comment on how gross it is.
To be honest, although I sometimes will sip it on ice to settle my stomach after a rich meal, I don't particularly appreciate drinking it that way. However, I do sometimes love Fernet when it's mixed into a cocktail. What Fernet Branca needs in a cocktail is a sparring partner, an ingredient that complements its strengths and masks its weaknesses.
If you're looking to experiment with Fernet Branca as a mixing element, here are five recipes to give you a head start.
We start with the only truly well-known Fernet Branca recipe: the Hanky Panky. The ingredients that are here to tame the fernet? Gin and sweet vermouth. Both of those have enough herbal heft to take on a fernet: Gin brings juniper to the bout, of course, and perhaps it goes without saying that you should choose a juniper-forward gin for this. If you choose a lighter style that tastes of rose hips, bergamot, and angels' tears, Branca will kick its keister. You hear that voice from the other room? It's the Hanky Panky calling out, "Tonight we Tanqueray." You should listen.
Invented by Chris Hannah of the French 75 Bar in New Orleans, this cocktail tames its feral fernet with tequila, which adds a vegetal note to the drink; Dubbonet, which mildly sweetens it, and brings a winey note; and Aperol, which adds a bitter orange kick. The trick to balancing Branca in a drink is to give it strong flavors to complement, and this drink demonstrates that very well.
Stepping into the ring to spar with fernet in this round is everyone's favorite, rye whiskey. The Toronto is essentially a riff on an Old Fashioned, but served up rather than on the rocks. The hearty richness of rye pairs well with the Branca, while the simple syrup softens its big flavors. The Toronto is a perfect autumn cocktail, so try one tonight while your kids are out shaking down the neighbors for candy.
I love everything about this drink: the name, the color, and the fact that it's just all-to-the-wall bitter. Campari! Cynar! 15 drops of bitters! Fernet! This isn't a drink for your mom or your cousin, but your grandmother probably approves. It's hard for the Fernet Branca to run roughshod over anything when it's probably the third-most bitter ingredient in the drink. So another way to keep Branca in its place? Outbitter it.
The Fanciulli, like the Toronto before it, is a variant on a classic cocktail. In this case, it's a Manhattan. The origins of this drink are somewhat dim, but the flavor certainly isn't. It's a Manhattan with a bitter menthol backbone. The original recipe calls for bourbon; rye works too. But whichever you choose, pick a strong whiskey, something that will stand up to the fernet. I'd go with Bulleit or Wild Turkey 101, if you're choosing bourbon.
Sound off! If you hate Fernet Branca or fernets of all forms, speak. If you have another fernet or bitter liqueur you love more than Branca, let us know. If you absolutely adore Fernet Branca and want to take it to the grave, oooooh spooky!