Spirits & Liqueurs Liqueur

What the #$@! Do I Do with This? Fernet-Branca: What It Is and How to Use It.

It’s the “bartender’s handshake” and so much more.

Bottle illustration
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Liquor.com / Laura Sant

You bought a spirit or liqueur because a cocktail recipe called for a very small amount. Now you’re stuck with the remaining 9/10ths of the bottle and what to do with it. No worries. Bartenders weigh in with tips and recipes for getting every last drop out of an underutilized ingredient so it doesn’t gather dust on your bar shelf.

Maybe you were curious about Fernet-Branca’s cultlike following among bartenders. Or you bought it to mix a Hanky Panky, an early-20th-century creation with gin and sweet vermouth first stirred by bartender Ada Coleman at The Savoy in London. But the merits of this bracing liqueur, which was invented in Milan in 1845 and originally intended as a medicinal tonic, go well beyond that of glorified boozy mouthwash or potent digestivo.

Fernet-Branca is the best-known brand of the fernet category of amari, or bitter herbal liqueurs. It dominates the category to the point it has become nearly synonymous with it, as Kleenex has for facial tissue. It’s also so popular among drinks-industry workers that it’s often called the “bartender’s handshake.” It’s made with 27 herbs, roots and spices—its recipe is a closely guarded secret—and spends at least 12 months aging in Croatian oak barrels. 

“I always tell guests that Fernet-Branca is bitter but with a steeped tealike bitterness [and] bright refreshing peppermint quality,” says Alex Cuper, the general manager and beverage director at El Che Steakhouse & Bar in Chicago. He believes spicy rye whiskey and gin best play off its herbal quality, like in his #4 With a Smile, which stirs rye with smoked Fernet-Branca and a house-made cola syrup. “I also love to replace sweet vermouth with Fernet-Branca in stirred drinks like a Manhattan,” he says. “It still offers the sweetness of the vermouth with a more herbaceous and exciting flavor.”

"You have to play fernet with either other bold spirits or flavors, or things that will soften it,” says Kraig Rovensky, the general manager of Life on Mars in Seattle, who has always found vermouth, sweeter amari, funky pot-still rums and smoky scotches to work seamlessly with fernet. He likens this technique to the philosophy behind the Last Word, a cocktail with several intense ingredients that on paper shouldn’t work together but somehow find perfect synergy. “Those bold flavors, if paired well, can create cohesive wonderful cocktails,” he says. His Prophet in Plain Clothes cocktail is one such drink, so-named because it “hides” an entire ounce of fernet inside. 

Jon Pizano, the head bartender at Lazy Bird in Chicago, describes Fernet-Branca as Jägermeister all grown up. “It’s earthy, bitter, mentholated and herbaceous—dry enough to be the base spirit and prominent enough to be used as a modifier,” he says. He pairs it with sugar in drinks to cut and balance the sweetness, including his Chef’s Kiss, made with yellow Chartreuse, demerara syrup and lime juice. He also douses a sugar cube in fernet instead of bitters for a reimagined Champagne Cocktail, pours a shot into hot cocoa, drizzles it over ice cream and adds it to make a boozy root beer float. And while he admits that it’s natural to shy away from fernet’s initial whiff of medicinal bitterness, since humans are hard-wired to treat that flavor as a toxin, he has a surefire way to win over first-timers. “Ginger beer chasers help tame some of that mentholated aftertaste that can be hard to shake.” 

 

  • #4 With a Smile

    #4 With a Smile

    Liquor.com / Tim Nusog

    Cuper’s riff on the classic Whiskey & Coke, also a nod to the Argentine tradition of drinking fernet con Coca, also known as a Fernandito, is made by smoking Fernet-Branca and mixing it with rye whiskey and a syrup that uses cooked down Coca-Cola. “We decided to smash the two [drinks] together into an awesome stirred brown cocktail,” he says. “The smoked Fernet-Branca offers a toasty marshmallowlike flavor.” You can smoke the fernet in a regular smoker, with a smoking gun or on a grill with a smoker box.

    Get the recipe.

  • Prophet in Plain Clothes

    Prophet in Plain Clothes

    Liquor.com / Tim Nusog

    Rovensky, a self-proclaimed fan of Fernet-Branca, says this drink is named for the fact that “it hides the glorious message of fernet inside.” The bold character of Laphroaig, an ultra-peaty Islay scotch, is softened by the fernet, along with vermouth and another amaro. “You’re left with this smoky, bitter sipper that would be pleasing to any Rob Roy drinker,” he says.

    Get the recipe.

  • Chef’s Kiss

    Chef's Kiss

    Liquor.com / Tim Nusog

    Pizano likes the way Fernet-Branca imparts complexity to drinks while cutting through other rich or sweet ingredients. In this equal-parts cocktail, it melds with yellow Chartreuse to lend pleasant notes of honeysuckle, saffron and menthol. “The demerara carries both spirits into a silky smooth jaunt that’s awoken by the bright acidity of the lime juice,” he says. “It finishes slightly dry with a touch of salinity to round out the edges.”

    Get the recipe.