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The 10 Best Cocktails to Make with Fernet-Branca

Beyond the “bartender’s handshake,” this bitter herbal liqueur works beautifully in a variety of cocktails.

Illustration of Fernet-Branca with cocktails surrounding the bottle / Laura Sant

Sometimes wryly referred to as the grown-up Jägermeister, Fernet-Branca is another inky, herbaceous, aggressively bitter liqueur with a mentholated, medicinal finish. It is considerably less sweet, however, resulting in an even more astringent flavor profile. For the “fergins,” those unfamiliar with the Italian elixir, it is not for the faint of heart. Its unusual kick is just one of the many reasons Fernet-Branca has such a devoted following, especially among bartenders who often gift shots to favored guests and industry colleagues as the “bartender’s handshake” of choice. 

Fernet-Branca is part of the fernet category of intense bitter liqueurs. Many spirits experts agree that fernet liqueurs are considered a type of amaro. In Brad Thomas Parson’s book, Amaro, he breaks down the tricky taxonomy of amaro, as there isn’t a strict classification for each singular style. He separates out the lighter, citrus-forward styles of amari—such as Aperol—from the herbaceous alpine styles, as well as those made with artichokes, rhubarb, and black truffles.

In Parson’s book, fernet falls into a subcategory of amari that contain specific aromatic ingredients, and, often, have a higher alcohol content. Fernet-Branca is by far the most famous of all the fernet styles of liqueur—so much so that it has somewhat become synonymous with the category, though other examples of the style are available.

Founded in Milan, Italy in 1845, Fernet-Branca’s proprietary formula contains a blend of 27 herbs, roots, barks, and spices that are sourced from four continents. While the chairman of Fratelli Branca—the company behind the Italian liqueur—is the only one who has access to the complete recipe, it's suspected that some of these botanicals include bitter orange peel, aloe, cinchona, cardamom, chamomile, and saffron. The macerated mixture ages for 12–16 months in Slovenian oak barrels. 

Fernet-Branca was initially created by herbalist and entrepreneur, Bernardino Branca, as an herbal remedy and marketed as a cure for everything from stomach ailments and anxiety to menstrual discomforts and even cholera. Widely endorsed at the time by doctors throughout Italy, its popularity grew, and by the turn of the century, Fernet-Branca was available globally. It was even able to survive Prohibition in the States as one of the few alcoholic imports legally sold during this time due to being marketed to pharmacies as a medicine. 

Fernet-Branca is most often considered a digestif, but it can also be enjoyed as a stomach-opening aperitif. Because of its uncompromising bitter qualities, incorporating Fernet-Branca into a cocktail is an excellent way to help frame and shape the liqueur's potent profile. At about 40% ABV—a higher alcohol content than most liqueurs—it can be used as a bold base spirit or as a complex cocktail modifier. 

Here are 10 of the best cocktails to make with a bottle of Fernet-Branca. 

  • Toronto

    Toronto cocktail / Tim Nusog

    The Toronto cocktail is a riff on the Manhattan and includes rye whiskey, Fernet-Branca, simple syrup, and aromatic bitters. As with many cocktail origin stories, it’s not very clear when this drink was created or if it was even invented in the city of Toronto. Early iterations of this recipe first appeared as the Fernet Cocktail in Robert Vermeire’s 1922 book Cocktails: How to Mix Them. The cocktail was eventually named the Toronto and was featured in subsequent books, including David Embury’s The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks

    Get the recipe.

  • Ferrari

    Ferrari shot / Tim Nusog

    This cocktail, essentially a shot, is made up of only two ingredients: Fernet-Branca and Campari, another beloved Italian liqueur. And as the name implies, this shot should go down fast. This equal-parts concoction is a step up from the single shot of Fernet Branca, often considered the “bartender’s handshake.”

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  • Hanky Panky

    Hanky Panky / Tim Nusog 

    Before Harry Craddock, the famed bartender and author behind 1930s The Savoy Cocktail Book, took over as head bartender at American Bar in London’s Savoy Hotel, there was Ada Coleman. Bartender to the early 20th century stars of London, “Coley” created this drink for stage actor and bar regular, Sir Charles Hawtrey, who exclaimed upon sipping it, “By Jove! That is the real hanky-panky!” This cocktail recipe, adapted from Charles H. Baker Jr.’s 1939 book, The Gentleman’s Companion, features equal parts gin and sweet vermouth with a couple dashes of Fernet-Branca and an orange twist.

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  • #4 With a Smile

    #4 With a Smile cocktail / Tim Nusog

    Created by Alex Cuper, the general manager and beverage director at El Che Steakhouse & Bar in Chicago, this stirred brown cocktail was inspired by a Whiskey & Coke and the unofficial national cocktail of Argentina, Fernet con Coca—also known as Fernet and Coke. Smoked Fernet-Branca and a homemade Coca-Cola syrup elevate the classic combos. 

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    Continue to 5 of 10 below.
  • Chef’s Kiss

    Chef's Kiss cocktail / Tim Nusog

    This equal-parts cocktail, composed of Fernet-Branca, Yellow Chartreuse, lime juice, and demerara syrup shares DNA with both the Last Word and a further riff on that classic, the Naked & Famous. Created by Jon Pizano, the head bartender at Chicago’s Lazy Bird, the Chef’s Kiss is complex, herbaceous, and refreshing. 

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  • Gold Rusher

    Gold Rusher cocktail / Tim Nusog

    San Francisco has historically consumed more Fernet than anywhere else in the country, and this Gold Rush variation is an homage to the city’s obsession with the stuff. The addition of Fernet-Branca lends a bitter complexity and depth to this Whiskey Sour variation and darkens the otherwise golden hue.

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  • Bee Sting

    Bee Sting / Tim Nusog

    Bartending veteran Jonathan Pogash created this cross between a Rusty Nail and a scotch sour. Smoky Islay single malt scotch brand Laphroaig is mixed with the German honey liqueur Bärenjäger and a quarter-ounce of Fernet-Branca. Each ingredient has its own individual complexity and is softened and rounded out with tangerine juice and an egg white. The resulting drink is bittersweet, botanical, and rich, with a smoky finish.

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  • Nail in the Coffin

    Nail in the Coffin / Tim Nusog

    Another twist on the Rusty Nail, this cocktail combines Japanese whisky with dry Madeira wine, Licor 43, and Fernet-Branca. Created by San Francisco bartender Brian Means, the cocktail found a following at hotel bar and restaurant Dirty Habit while on the menu there, and is featured in Daniel Yaffe’s book, Drink More Whiskey.

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  • What’s Up, Doc

    What's Up, Doc?
    SaltRock Southwest Kitchen

    This refreshing bourbon cocktail includes fresh carrot and ginger juice alongside Fernet-Branca, lemon juice, and an aromatic herb garnish. Not surprisingly for such a juice-forward concoction, this cocktail was a spa resort creation for SaltRock Southwest Kitchen Amara Resort and Spa in Sedona, Arizona, by bartender Eduardo “Eddy” Rocha. 

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  • Kanar Sazerac

    Kanar Sazerac / Tim Nusog

    For Trekkies, classic cocktail enthusiasts, and Fernet-Branca fans, this Star Trek-inspired cocktail from bartender and writer John deBary checks all the boxes. The cocktail’s name, Kanar Sazerac, comes from the liquor that the Cardassians drank on Deep Space Nine. Fernet-Branca and cognac make up the rich base of the drink and are enhanced by a half-ounce of simple syrup and dashes of Angostura and orange bitters. A salt rim and lemon twist garnish round out this spirit-forward Sazerac variation.

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