Fabulous fernet

Mysterious spirit appearing on menus in Boulder

Allison Anderson mixes up a cocktail using fernet.

“No quiero terminar en una celda sin mi fernet” “I don’t want to die in a cell without my fernet.”

—Vilma Palma e los Vampiros, “Fernet con Coca”

“For the players, it tastes a little bit like Yaeger, but smoother / tell me if you feeling the flavor” —Equipto and Mike Marshall, “I Drink Fernet feat. Skeptic and Cognito”

“Hagamo un asado; tomemo fernet.”

“We have an asado [barbeque]; we drink fernet.”

—Los Caligaris, “Asado y Fernet”

“Just go, if you want to go, I could kill you / Just go, anywhere you / This always happens when fernet is gone”

—Los Coming Soon, “Fernet is Gone”

Depending on who you ask, it’s a miracle hangover cure, a delicious digestive aid or a secret handshake for those in an exclusive club. But try it for the first time, and you might feel like Bill Cosby did, as he described in one of his stand-up routines:

“Fernet … It does the job,” Cosby said. “But oh, how it tastes.”

And the taste is, indeed, something to believe.

Watch someone stick their nose in a glass of Fernet- Branca and, judging by their reaction, they might as well have taken a deep whiff of wasabi. Fernet is an Italian spirit that’s part of the “amaro” family, a group of alcohols favored by Italians for drinking either before or after dinner. Amaro are grape-based spirits flavored with herbs and sweetened with sugar, often drunk to ease digestion at the ends of meals. Whereas many spirits in the amaro family — the plural in Italian is amari, and the translation is “bitters” — have a sweetness that cuts the bitterness of the herbs, fernets are famous (or infamous, depending on your perspective) for almost ditching the sugar altogether.

That’s the claim to fame of Fernet-Branca, the Connect largest producer of the alcohol in the world. And though there is debate over just how much sugar is in Fernet-Branca, no one can possibly accuse Fernet-Branca of being sweet. The manufacturers claim that the alcohol contains around 60 herbs, and the cacophony of scents assaults your nose on first encounter.

The scent is somewhat stronger than the taste, however, yet the flavor is extremely herbal and somewhat medicinal, with a black licorice front and a mint-like aftertaste. Some have compared it to an unsweetened Jägermeister. It tastes like something an Italian grandmother would buy from a dentist-surgeon in the 1890s to cure her children’s ails. Ingredients and 19th centuries. Argentina, which saw multiple Connect waves with of Italian us immigration in the 20th century, now consumes massive amounts of the spirit. By the mid-2000s, fernet appeared on menus at chic bars in San include a heavy dose of saffron (Fernet-Branca is said to be the world’s largest single consumer the spice), aloe, myrrh, linden, galangal, chamomile, cinnamon, iris, bitter orange, and perhaps even certain mushrooms and barks.

The alcohol became popular in Italy in the 18th Francisco and New York, and now has made its way into Boulder. It seems that Boulderites are finally discovering what has been a long-held secret in the service industry.

“In a world of acquired tastes, it’s the most possible acquired taste,” says Dev Ranjan, general manager at Bramble & Hare, which sells shots of Luxardo Fernet on its happy hour menu. “It’s the one drink you can get where it’s like, people who don’t drink this really don’t drink this. If you are not used to the flavor of fernet, it’s almost unbearable. It’s so bitter it’s almost palatenumbing. So I think it’s really a way to separate out the community. … If you order a shot of fernet at a restaurant, it’s a way of saying, ‘Hey I’m in the industry, too. We’re on the same team.’” “Here at Frasca [Food & Wine], it’s always been a sort of secret handshake,” says Allison Anderson, the restaurant’s bar manager. “It’s a little lesser so now, because fernet is becoming more and more popular.”

Like many people, Anderson was outside the United States when she first tried fernet.

“I lived in Mexico for a time and had a lot of friends from Argentina, and they always drank fernet and Coke,” she says. “It has recently become more of a comfortable topic in the lexicon of bartenders in this area.”

Italians tend to drink fernet straight, neat or maybe with a splash of soda, Anderson says. Argentinians mix it with coke, for a “fernet y coca.” The liquor is ubiquitous in Argentina; it appears on billboards, in television commercials and in pop music. Vilma Palma e los Vampiros had a hit in the ’90s with “Fernet con Coca,” with a catchy fernetoriented refrain, and Los Caligaris had a hit with “Asado y fernet,” in which the singer hoarsely slurs the lines over and over again, “We have an asado; we drink fernet.” There are many more songs dedicated to the alcohol, including a few English-language ones, like “I Drink Fernet” by Bay Area hip-hop artists Equipto and Mike Marshall.

In Boulder, there are three, maybe four types of fernet available for purchase. Many liquor stores carry Fernet- Branca, and many also carry the Luxardo company’s fernet.

Liquor Mart has occasionally sold R. Jelinek Fernet. Denverbased distillers Leopold Bros. makes its own fernet as well, and Odell Brewing Co. in Fort Collins makes a porter using Leopold’s fernet barrels.

“We got a fernet barrel from Leopold, and we threw some of our Cutthroat Porter in [just to] see what happened,” says Brent Cordle, barrel aging/pilot system manager for Odell.

The result was a crazy, earthy and herbal beer that thrilled the brewers there, Cordle recalls. After some experimentation, they settled on aging some of the Cutthroat Porter in the fernet barrel and then mixing it with equal parts of pure porter. They then bottle the 50/50 blend and sell under the label “Fernet Aged Porter.” It was very popular, Cordle says, and they plan on making more, despite the presence of minty and herbal flavors found in very few other beers.

“I don’t know anything that we make that has that aftertaste. … It’s definitely unique,” Cordle says.

However, fernet isn’t just for the brave few who can drink it straight. Fernet cocktails abound, though it takes a delicate touch to execute properly.

“It definitely takes an educated hand to deal with fernet, and you have to have a pretty good sense of what you’re doing and what you’re mixing,” Anderson says, though she notes, “I don’t think people are as afraid of it as they used to be.”

“You can do cocktails that can highlight that bitterness,” Ranjan says.

“Then there are drinks where you take the fernet and then try to balance it out with a really strong opposing element. So you’ll do equal parts fernet and the crème de cassis, or something really sweet like that.”

Only the truly adventurous tend to seek out a drink like fernet, and as more and more take the plunge, it will appear on more and more menus in Boulder. So plug your nose, tilt your head back and taste the tradition.

Respond: letters@boulderweekly.com


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