When I first told Daniel about this cocktail, I described it as an easy fall whiskey drink with fernet, stirred, strong, and spicy.
"Yes to the fernet!" he responded.
So I must apologize, because this is an easy (and delicious) fall whiskey drink, just like I said, using rye, a little triple sec, and fernet—but not that fernet.
Fernet-Branca, the brand of fernet you're probably most accustomed to seeing, is far from the only one around, and it wasn't even the first. In Amaro, expert-in-all-things-bitter Brad Thomas Parsons says that, while the category is loose, fernets generally have a few things in common: a high ABV (between the high 30s and 50%), a dark brown color, and certain herbs, including myrrh, saffron, chamomile, rhubarb root, aloe ferox, and mint, though the exact recipes are generally kept hush-hush. Branca's includes 27 botanicals sourced from four different continents, resulting in a fernet that's extremely minty and bold, even medicinal in flavor.
This drink is not good with that fernet.
Instead, this simple cocktail from Gabe Cothes, the lead bartender at San Francisco's Salt House, calls for R. Jelínek Czech-style fernet, a bottle I've spotted around town more and more frequently in recent months. The Jelínek "is worlds apart from Branca," says Cothes. "Branca has both a menthol and earthy quality, Jelínek does not. The Czech-style version is heavy on warm spice, especially cinnamon. It is softer on the palate." While Branca is a little aggressive, Cothes calls the Jelínek "comforting."
When it's stirred with rye and a little triple sec, and topped with a twisted orange peel, the rich cinnamon and baking-spice flavors of the fernet make for a silky, coherent, well-integrated drink that latches into the rye's spice and brings a flavor of black tea forward. The little bit of orange fragrance comes through, too; if you like the bergamot notes of Earl Grey tea, and if you like Old Fashioneds, this concoction is perfect for you. It helps that it's super simple to make: Just sweeten an ounce and a half of whiskey with a quarter ounce each of triple sec (Cothes calls for Combier; Cointreau works, too) and fernet; stir it on ice; and strain it onto new, big ice in a fancy glass, if you like a proper presentation.
Cothes adds a cinnamon stick to further boost the drink's cozy aromas. He calls his cocktail "Old Timber," saying that "the garnish looked like old wood that had fallen into the water." It's the kind of thing you want to sip after an evening walk on the first day you've noticed the weather cooling.
But I'll be drinking it deep into winter, especially since I've discovered that Jelínek isn't the only fernet that's great in this drink. Made with Fernet Leopold—a Denver-produced version that's flavored with black pepper, blackstrap molasses, dandelion root, sarsaparilla, and three different types of mint—the cocktail is drier and brighter, spicy and boozy but remarkably crisp and refreshing, too, with a piney side that's perfect for whetting your appetite before a big meal. It's not the cinnamon-y drink Gabe Cothes designed, but it's going to be a regular in my rotation from now on.
I also love it with smooth, herbal Fernet Francisco, which is flavored with rhubarb, gentian, cardamom, bay leaves, and chamomile, and has so little sugar it can't officially be categorized as a liqueur. The dry fernet lets the whiskey's spicy side and the orange liqueur's soft, aromatic character shine, adding a bitter, earthy edge that fits the cocktail's woodsy name.
It may not quite be the season for lighting the fireplace, but when that day comes, I'll be ready.