Fernet-Branca: It’s not just for industry heads anymore
“Oh my god, what was that?”
“Ah! It burns!”
“It’s so minty, and… something…”
These are some common responses to someone taking their first shot of Fernet-Branca, an Italian digestif with longstanding cult status among American bartenders. At 80 proof and with free bottles built into every case purchased, Fernet, as it’s most often called and ordered as, is a kick-in-the-face shot that costs a bar very little to pour.
It helps that it’s a, let’s just say, acquired taste.
And now through May 27 you have a rare opportunity to acquire not just a taste for Fernet, but to learn all the unique ways this peculiarly flavored spirit can be used in cocktails. This week, the Great Bitter Bar pops up at Eataly at the Prudential Center and features five cocktails with Fernet-Branca to (re)introduce people to the intricacies of the digestif.
“It’s a very interesting time for spirits right now,” said Fratelli Branca portfolio manager Peter Gugni. “We’re seeing a lot of boutique spirits coming into the mainstream market, and one of the most popular categories is amari.”
Amari, plural of amaro, or bitter in Italian, are herbal liqueurs traditionally consumed after dinner in Italy, and Italians have been making and drinking them for years. (Fernet-Branca, for example, has been produced in Milan since 1845.) All of them are very different from each other; Montenegro, for one, is fairly sweet with notes of orange, while Santa Maria al Monte is full of cinnamon and clove. Yet they all fall under the same category of spirit.
“What makes amari so cool and unique is that if you look at other spirits, vodka say, or even bourbon, if I put it in a cocktail you probably can’t tell me which one I put in there,” Gugni said.
With amari, you always know.
“There’s so many different botanicals and styles of amari, so while they’re all the same family, they’re all very distinct.”
For bartenders, Fernet-Branca is one of the trickiest spirits to play with in cocktails: A little bit goes a very long way, and it’s easy to overpower a drink with even a quarter ounce too much. So, while I don’t have a lot of nice things to say about Mario Batali (thanks for that cinnamon roll recipe as apology for sexual assault, dude), I’m excited about the Great Bitter Bar from a professional standpoint, as well as what it’s doing to educate people about a class of spirits that the average drinker may not know a whole lot about. It’s going to be a rare event, one for booze geeks and casual drinkers alike: You’ll have the opportunity to try this spirit in multiple combinations—neat, on the rocks, in a variety of cocktails—and then, because Eataly is the monstrous and overwhelming Italian emporium it is, you can do something you can’t do in bars or liquor stores.
“You can try a spirit, you can try a cocktail featuring that spirit, and then, if you find something you like, you can take a short walk across the hall and buy that spirit you just tried and you enjoy,” Gugni said. “The only way you’re going to be able to figure out which amari you love, what they pair with, is if you go out and experience them.”
And everyone ought to experience Fernet. At least once.
Who knows, you might even like it.
Haley is an AAN Award-winning columnist for DigBoston and Mel magazine and has contributed to publications including the Boston Globe and helped found Homicide Watch Boston. She has spearheaded and led several Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism investigations including a landmark multipart series about the racialized history of liquor licensing in Massachusetts, and for three years wrote the column Terms of Service about restaurant industry issues from the perspective of workers.