If you are already familiar with Fernet-Branca, then you need not read further. If you either have not heard of it, or if you have heard but have never tasted it, then prepare yourself: fernets (which is a type of spirit) are, shall we say, an acquired taste but one well worth acquiring. Fernet-Branca is perhaps one of the best hidden-in-plain-sight secrets of the spirits world—just ask any bartender worth their rimming salt.
Let’s start with the basics: a fernet is an intensely herb, roots, and spice infused liqueur in the amaro family—a family of bitter digestifs that have an impressive range of botanicals and flavor profiles. The Milan-made Fernet-Branca is absolutely not a starter amaro, and its bracing characteristics can certainly scare off more timid drinkers. It has an intense peppermint/licorice/root herb nose and a quick sweet-to-bitter transition on the palate that has historically been called “medicinal;” so medicinal, in fact, that you could still legally buy and imbibe it in San Francisco during the dark days of Prohibition. Perhaps that is why San Francisco still consumes more than a third of all the Fernet-Branca imported into the US annually, arguably second in global per-capita consumption only to Argentina.
So storied is the history of this particular fernet that it is most commonly known as either “the Bartenders Handshake” or “the Bartenders Shot,” taken straight and without a chaser. As an aside, if you are ever hosting a good bartender at your house or out on the town, just offer up a shot without comment—the gesture will be appreciated. However, Fernet-Branca can be an incredible addition to many classic cocktails in small quantities. Since all amaros are technically bitters, you can treat them like you would any other bitters and add a dash or two to a Manhattan, an Old Fashioned, a Martini, or even a Gin and Tonic for a little extra flavor and complexity.
If you want to simplify it, a Fernet and Ginger is a wonderfully bracing and restorative tipple, and the Argentinian favorite Fernet con Cola works just as well as an aperitif to prime your appetite as it does a digestif to settle the stomach after a hearty meal.