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Fernet-Branca: The Bitter and the Sweet

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Last week, a coworker flabbergasted me with a thank-you gift for doing something that I considered a routine part of my job. It was a truly unexpected, generous gesture — and what she gave me was a surprise, too. At first glance, I sized up the tall, sparkly gift bag and assumed it contained a bottle of wine, always a welcome present. When I opened it, however, I found a large bottle filled with a coffee-colored liqueur that, when I unscrewed the cap, smelled leathery, minty, and herbaceous all at once. And that's how I came to fall in love with Fernet-Branca.

The aroma that emanated from the bottle reminded me of both root beer and iced tea — if the drinks were filtered through my grandfather's aftershave. Its taste, which I waited to get home to discover, was astringent and almost uncomfortably bitter. It reminded me of some dark spoonful of medicine served by my childhood physician, and I screwed up my face as I swallowed. Then I poured a second glass of the amaro liqueur, which, according to most bartenders, is best served neat. I tried to discern the flavor profile, but with 40 herbs, roots and spices on the ingredient list, it's complicated.

Unlike most apertifs and digestifs, Fernet-Branca is very low in sugar. It's also one of the only amari liqueurs to be aged for a full year in oak barrels, a process that adds intensity and complexities to the final result. Distilled in Milan, Italy, since 1845, its ingredients include the familiar and the exotic: chamomile, peppermint, saffron, myrrh, Chinese rhubarb, aloe ferox, angelica, colombo root, cinchona bark, and orris root are just a sampling of the herbs that go into the mix using both hot and cold infusion processes. The actual recipe is known by only one man, Niccolo Branca, the great-great-grandson of Bernardino Branca, who invented the liqueur and originally promoted it for its health benefits, including flatulence, overeating, gas pains, and hangovers.

Today, Fernet-Branca remains popular in Italy, and in Argentina, where it's drunk with a Coca-Cola mixer. The liqueur is catching on in Germany, where the preferred drinking method is Fernet-Branca and Red Bull. On this continent, it's most frequently consumed as a bracing shot. It's also turning up as an ingredient in many craft cocktail recipes.

I was intrigued by a cocktail I found online called the Hanky Panky. The drink first appeared in 1925, making its debut at the American Bar at the Savoy Hotel in London. Today, it's making a comeback — likely due to its simplicity and its complexity. The Hanky Panky only has three ingredients: 1 ½ ounces of gin (I used Beefeater's), 1 ½ ounces of sweet vermouth, and 2 dashes of Fernet-Branca. You simply stir the liquids with ice in a mixing glass or cocktail shaker, then strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish the glass with a twist of orange peel if you like, and sip.

I also sampled what Argentines refer to as "ferne con coca" or "Fernecola" — an ice-packed glass with a few fingers of Fernet-Branca topped with sugary Mexican Coke. While the sweetness of the cola hardly subdues the bitterness of the liqueur, the bubbles make the drink particularly intoxicating. During WWII, a Fernet-Branca distillery opened in Buenos Aires — today, it and Milan remain the only places in the world where the liqueur is made. The International Wine and Spirits Record, which monitors the world's beverage alcohol market, recently declared that Argentina consumes three-fourths of the world's Fernet-Branca.

But be warned, Fernet-Branca is not for everyone's tastes. I recommend taking the liqueur for a test-spin before committing to a full bottle. Ask your favorite bartender to pour you a shot or order a Fernet-Branca-based cocktail if you see one on the menu. At Hog & Hominy in East Memphis, there's a delicious drink called The Grifter (yes, it's an homage to the Memphis indie-rock band) that pairs Fernet-Branca with Four Roses bourbon. The cocktail is a bit fussier than something I'd whip up at home, but, that said, the final result is so delicious that it warranted a full-page review in Conde Nast Traveler.

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