A long-time favorite of bartenders, Fernet Branca has made a huge leap in popularity in the cocktail world during the past decade or so. A go-to in much of Argentina (where it’s mixed with Coca-Cola), San Francisco and, of course, Italy, where it was invented in 1845, fernet’s reach—and the drinking public’s familiarity with it—has exploded.
Though the powerful liqueur has been described as “brooding” and “aftershave-like,” (are we allowed to quote ourselves?) and has been compared to things like “Robitussin,” many a bartending professional enjoys the minty amaro as a shot. That brave approach isn’t for everyone. Those who aren’t willing to down the digestif in one quick go might instead prefer it in a fine cocktail, like the Hanky Panky or the Fernando. But sometimes Fernet Branca’s distinctiveness doesn’t quite pop in certain recipes. That’s where other brands of fernet come in.
The popularity of the spiced amaro, which can be made with a combination of anything from cardamom and myrrh to chamomile and saffron, has inspired distilleries large and small to experiment. While almost all kinds have a relatively high alcohol content for amaro (most hover around 40 percent ABV) and an aftertaste that lingers perhaps a bit longer than you sometimes like, each distillery that bottles fernet creates a unique liqueur.
Take Fernet Leopold Highland Amaro ($33), for instance. Made in Denver, Colorado since 2012 by Leopold Bros distillery, Fernet Leopold’s flavor is heavy on spice notes, particularly cloves. It’s infused with gentian root, lavender, ginger and sarsaparilla, then aged in Chardonnay barrels, giving this fernet an all-around different flavor than most fernets on the market. It’s also quite easy to drink over ice, with a twist.
Certain fernet bottlings have heavy menthol, almost piney flavors, like Luxardo Fernet ($26). As with Fernet Branca, it’s made in the motherland. The herbal aftertaste doesn’t linger too long in the Luxardo Fernet, but the same can’t be said for Tempus Fugit Spirits Fernet del frate Angelico ($60), which sits on the tip of the tongue long after taking a sip. The Swiss amaro was released in 2013, but is based on an old Italian recipe, one that likely dates from the 1800s.
Another old-recipe fernet that’s new-to-the-States is Fernet-Vallet ($25). Made in Mexico for about 150 years, it’s a common addition to Highballs. It’s only been available in the States since 2013. This bottling is incredibly balanced, with notes of rhubarb, cloves, cardamom and, not surprisingly, menthol.
An even newer option showing up in liquor stores across the country since July 2014 is Chicago’s Letherbee Fernet ($39). It may look a little intimidating in the bottle—and that’s because it is. The extremely viscous and slightly minty fernet tingles something fierce—perhaps that’s the eucalyptus talking?—and would certainly stand up in cocktails.
These five bottlings span the fernet flavor spectrum from mint-forward to spice-heavy to downright mind-boggling, but they’re just a sampling of what is currently available. Go ahead. Start a fernet exploration.