As global palettes change, Italian Amaros have come into their own. One of the best-known examples is Fernet Branca.
For many years, Fernet was almost like a secret handshake among bartenders, with its amazing complex flavour and almost cult-like following. But how much do you really know about this bitter amaro.
We talk to Edoardo Branca, the sixth-generation member of the Branca family about the amaro’s popularity, the future of the brand and of course what cocktails it should be used in
As global palates change, Italian Amaros have come into their own. One of the best known examples is Fernet Branca. For many years Fernet was almost like a secret handshake amongst bartenders with its amazing complex flavour and almost cult-like following. But how much do you really know about this bitter Amaro. We talked to Eduardo Branca, the sixth generation of the Branca family about the Amaro's popularity, the future of the brand, and of course what cocktails you should be using it in.
Thank you for joining us, Eduardo.
Thank you for having me.
Now, like so many Amaros, Fernet started as a medicinal product. Can you tell us a little bit about its origins?
So, the product ... I can speak for hours, but let's say the original Fernet Branca was 1845 and it was born in Milan and it was born as a medicine, as an anti-choleric. In Milan there was around a thousand to 2000 people dying every year by cholera. And so my great, great, great grandfather, i’m sixth generation in the family, wanted to find a solution to this cholera and so he created the Fernet Branca. On the name there is kind of a little bit of a mystery because depending on who you speaking in the factory in Milan, if you go with the guys wearing the shirts and the ties, will tell you that was Mr. Branca, my great grandfather that was an arborist with the help of a Swedish chemist, Mr. Fernet and together they created the Fernet Branca.
Instead of to go downstairs and you speak with the guys that are actually making the Fernet Branca. They will tell you, "No, that's absolutely not true, the people upstairs that had too many shots." It's actually the real truth is, when you create Fernet Branca, one of the ingredients is aloe ferox and normally aloe vera as a cream, we use another type that is aloe ferox. And if you know the Smurf and Gargamel, inside you have a big pot and you put inside the aloe with some water and was with a fire underneath and you use the big iron pale to mix it. And to see when it was ready, you pick out the iron pan and the iron pan was really shiny. And in dialect from Milanese, Fernet is a shiny iron and they were shouting Fernet.
So both of these stories have a little bit of the truth, but you know as well, we don't have a definitive answer because we don't have any records of this Mr Fernet and we don't have as well any records to invent a product of the name Fernet Branca when it was already created. So there is a little bit of a mystery there, but still when Fernet Branca was created, it was at the beginning, very, very beginning was sold in small casks and it was sold to hospitals and you had a spoon of a day, but actually it was three spoons, one in the morning, one at one o'clock ... every time before your meals. And one of them of the effects of Fernet Branca is actually that was opening the upper part of your stomach and like this you will get more hungry and you will start eating.
And one of the problems of cholera was that you are very bad, start throwing up, you don't need anymore, you are not hungry and this was helping people. It was like the first step of taking a proper medicine. So you will have it, you will have a spoon, you will get hungry. We start to eat a little bit, get a little bit more weight on you and then start to go with the medicine. And so let's say proper medicines of the mid 1800’s still, but you know, so forth. It was proper considering the medicine.
Now, it's said that Fernet can cure everything from headaches to fever. Are these claims just part of the myth or is there any truth to them?
So, it depends if you speak with your grandmother or my grandmother and grandmothers or Italian grandmothers, they will tell you, yes, it can cure everything and have it and ... I will not recommend it at all to take it as a medicine, but if I'm sneezing and I have a bit of a cough, I will heat up a Fernet Branca and I'll drink it hot and it makes me feel better. But this is just me and I've been drinking Fernet Branca the whole of my life. So I'm a bit bias and I know only one side.
Now, on the other side of that Fernet has a reputation amongst bartenders for being a hangover cure. Is that warranted?
I can say two things about Fernet. There is practically zero sugar inside. So what it gives you a hangover in the first ... first step is when you drink too much sugar and so you have a hangover. With Fernet Branca you can drink maybe a couple more and you will not wake up with a hangover. And as well because of the next day when you wake up with a hangover because you drank a lot of other things. If you have a small Fernet Branca, it helped me quite a lot of times, so it's a yes, then I will go for it.
Now, I imagine you can't tell us every ingredient. Can you tell us a little bit about what goes into Fernet?
Of course. There is 27 herbs and roots inside Fernet Branca and we buy them from four different continents all around the world. Unfortunately none come from Australia and New Zealand as well. But from all the other worlds we come. And as I was saying before, we have rhubarb, inside, Chinese rhubarb. We have aloe ferox as well. We have chamomile inside as well that we actually own, that we buy, but not we buy because we grow it ourselves in Argentina. And then we have as well one very special ingredient actually and it's saffron and you take the glass and you move it around like it was wine, on the sides of the glass we'll see this yellowish colour. And that's given actually by the saffron and the saffron is one of the most essential verbs all around the world, we buy it.
And we buy it and then we bring it inside of the company and rework it. We keep actually the saffron in a safe. And we have two companies that they are producing Fernet Branca. One in Buenos Aires, outside of Buenos Aires and one in Milan. And they are kept in safes because the price of saffron at one point in May 2000 was kind of higher than gold. And then you have different types of saffron, but we buy the highest quality. So we literally provide the plant and it's not the plant that is washed down, but really the first, first cut of the saffron. And it's one of the things that we're very, very proud of Fernet Branca that we buy all natural ingredients.
Nowadays we can say very happily that we are as well GMO-free, but we buy the old ingredients, they come in the factory, we rework them inside the factory. The recipe is still a secret that my father once puts at the beginning of some ingredients together. So he's still involved in the company and he's still working as a president nowadays. And all the employees they work the same Chinese walls. So one employee doesn't know what does the other one.
And so this is all part of the fun of working in Fernet Branca and before I will say that I'm sixth generation, but we have a lot of employees in our factory actually that are fourth and fifth generation working inside the family business and who have families that have been working here and every year we have a Christmas lunch, we told the employees. And it's a lot of fun because we speak and they speak about your, their great, great grandfather working in the factory and how different hundred years ago. And they still have running stories in the family and it's what make us a family company and it's what make us kind of happy. And we kind of liked that. I would like to keep that.
Once you have everything together, how long does it take to produce the liquid? I believe it's barrel-aged for a year?
So, if you want to take it from the beginning, beginning. For every flower, every root that you have because they grow or around the world for, for a year, then they come in the factory and work the production, it takes around two months to make a bottle of Fernet Branca, but unfortunately after these two months, the product is not ready because it will not have the effects that Fernet Branca has as an adjustive if you have it after dinner, it will make your stomach more relaxed and will digest everything. So what we do, we age it in Croatian old barrels between 12 to 16 months and it comes by [inaudible 00:10:43], but this is the fault of the aloe. The reason is because it's the last ingredient that we put in and it takes him kind of a year. He's a very shy guy, let's put it this way.
And it takes him to go and meet all the other ingredients at least 12 months. Sometimes, unfortunately it takes a little bit more time because as much as we love, we cannot control the weather. So sometimes I had a little more sun or rained a little more and so it's a little bit thicker and so it takes more time to blend with all the other ingredients. So normally, it's a year, but sometimes it's 16 months. So it depends and we do what we do. After the 12 months, we have employees, we take samples of the product and in old times we’d rent it and test it and say yes it's ready. Nowadays you will bring it in the lab and we'll see if it has all the organoleptic feature that it has.
And for us this has been kind of fun because a lot of times people tell me like, "Eduardo a bottle Fernet Branca tastes different from another one and normally there are two answers that I can give you at that and depending if you speak with the marketing or if you speak with the guys, but normally in my opinion the real reason is because you know old ingredients year to year they change depending on how much time and things and so as well a little bit different at Branca taste changes as well and so maybe you will have a little bit more mint a little bit more saffron, a little bit more chamomile. Instead if you speak with the marketing guys, what they will tell you is like,"Yeah, if you had a bad meal and then you have Fernet Branca, you will have a little bit more of mint coming out. If you had a very good meal, you'll have less mint coming out." So it depends but in my opinion is just the ingredients because you know as much as you want, it's very difficult to have every year the same thing.
Now if somebody has never tasted Fernet before, how would you describe it?
Okay. There was one guy that told me that ... I think, it's very bad to speak about other brands. But it's a Jager-bomb on steroids. That's kind of an explanation of Fernet Branca, but it's bitter. There is practically zero sugar inside, there is a little bit by the distillation. There is rhubarb, aloe that are very, very bitter roots. And so then when you give this thickness to Fernet Branca. So, if you're going to taste it the first time, normally we do it in three steps. You will have the first step, you will smell it and put it a little bit on your lips and you will get to know a little bit what is coming on for you because when we started speaking, you was telling the Amaro trend. But a lot of Amaros that are on the streets nowadays. They call them Amaro, but they're full of sugar and they really don't taste bitter, they really tastes sweet. And so Fernet Branca, we never change our recipe in 174 years. Next year is good a year and will be 175th.
Well, first step, you will have the alcohol, the bitterness that is coming in a little bit. Then on the second step that you will have, you will have, the alcohol will tend not to come anymore. You will have a little bit more flowers and you will feel all the herbs coming down and on the first sip it will be like, you will have the full body of the Fernet Branca. I know that is not for everybody, Fernet Branca, but I think is what make it special.
It's like a journey. You start drinking, let's say when you're 18 or 21 in the United States and you start drinking things that are very sweet, but then when you start to grow a little bit more accustomed to spirits and you enjoyed them, you really go and enjoy Fernet Branca for what it is. It's like a book. It has a lot of layers and you need to understand it very well to fully appreciate. You have four season in one glass and it's what I love about Fernet Branca.
They do say that it is an acquired taste. Why do you think somebody should just persevere and keep going until they do enjoy it.
I think normally, it takes you thee times. I think when you had a very big meal, if you want to digest, you will have a small Fernet Branca and then no, I would say not for everybody is it acquired because it's something ... I'm speaking for myself, but a lot of people that are drunk at the first time, they enjoy that as well. An example is my wife and it's the reason why I married her the first time she tried Fernet Branca she was like, "Oh I love this. What is this?" And I said, "Okay, you are my woman. I'm going to marry you." But as well, it's something that you persevere because it's something that ... it's nice, it's a pause for reflection. Having this four season in your mouth. The Herb, the spices that are going around.
And I think it's something that really ... having a sip of Fernet Branca it's like kind of growing up. And then I know that is not for everybody, but when you joined the Fernet Branca family, we are part of the family and you're kind of unique and all the Fernet Branca drinkers that I met all around the world are unique in their own way and they're kind of special.
Now, if someone hasn't tried Fernet before, would you recommend that they drink it straight or would you recommend that they perhaps try in a cocktail. As their first introduction
If it's a friend of yours and you want to prank him, let him have a shot for the first time. So, it really depends on ... I would say both. It really depends with who you having for. If it's a friend of yours that is starting to enter in the cocktail industry or starting to drink, I will recommend to have it in a cocktail because like a good example, you can go, you can take the example of Argentina where they drink Fernet and Coke, but if not, if you want to have something of a little bit more easygoing, you can have it with a Hanky Panky. That is quite a famous cocktail here in the United States.
Instead if you have a person that is into spirits and he's more of a connoisseur if you want or somebody that really wants to discover new things and is kind of an adventurous person, I will sit in front of him and have like, "try this new thing. It's very bitter, it's very herbal-ish, there is practically zero sugar inside." And with maybe a couple of ice cubes the first time, like this gets a little more colder and gets diluted a little bit more in water. And I think that could be the two ways that I will start and have Fernet Branca for the first time. So both.
When you're drinking it yourself, you mentioned that you've been drinking it all your life. How do you like to drink it?
So, for me I can drink it anywhere, but I will say most of the times I drink it ... I will drink it neat in summer maybe I would put an ice cube, but it's very, very rare. And sometimes I will have literally a finger before dinner at night just to open up and to be a little bit more hungry when I'm front ... I will do it in Christmas time or during Easter when I'm sitting down with the whole family and I know that I'm going to it like there is no tomorrow and there is a lot of things that I love and I don't want to ... and I worked with more. So we have a little bit before because of the properties it has to opens up the upper part of your stomach so you get more hungry and so we'll have a little bit before and then as well after dinner, neat. Then there is a couple of occasions when I was younger when I'd go out and maybe for you know bars, I would have mostly ... I would have a Fernet and Coke.
Now you've mentioned the Fernet and Coke. You also mentioned the Hanky Panky. What other cocktails dos Fernet work best in?
There is so many, I like to do a Reverse Manhattan and I will put there as well two dashes of Fernet Branca. So it means like I will do two parts of Vermouth, one part of Bourbon and then I will finish it with a couple of dashes of Fernet Branca. There is quite a few that I will like to have. There is the Italian Highlander that is something like half an oz of a Fernet Branca. Then we'll go with a Glenfiddich 15 years, a little bit of Rye and then a little bit of pineapple as well. But I'm normally ... Fernet Branca it's ... when I drink it in cocktails normally I don't have one that I preferred the most because I tend to go out and have a lot of good bartender friends and they make me the cocktail and every time they change it because they're trying new recipes.
So there is literally not one major cocktail that I will be, that I will tell you, "Yes," you know this is the best one or the one that I drink the most. There is another couple ... there is one that I liked that is Fernet Branca, Antica Formula, a little bit of honey, then we'll cut a little of the bitterness, lemon and a little bit of ginger on top and that will be another that I like, but it's ... if I go out, like I would say three times a week I will have three different cocktails and every time it's a different one.
The worlds palates have become more inclined towards bitters and I assume more and more people are becoming Fernet drinkers, how is that affecting the brand?
I would say didn't effect a lot of the brand. We are a lucky company in some way. We're family owned since sixth generation and I have the teachings of my great grandfather that taught my grandfather, great grandfather and my father and myself. So you literally ... we haven't changed in any ways. The recipe has been the same for 175 years. A lot of people in the past ... before this Amaro went back, we had a lot of marketing directors that were coming into the company and saying, "You know what, you need to change the recipe. Put a lot of sugar. Everybody's going that way. We need to follow." And it was something that my grandfather said my father said and taught me as well. We are what we are, we're not going to change for nobody.
Fernet Branca is the truth and it's what we are. We are bitter and we are like this and we're not going to change because there is this thing and now that it's coming back to Amaro, we were the first and we didn't change. We didn't change our recipe. We didn't add sugar to our recipe and we are the same when people are coming back to us. But you know, we're still producing Fernet Branca as we were doing like 30 years ago. And now that there is this Amaro, the people are getting in, we're here and we're just trying ... what we're trying to do is try to give a chance of people of learning what is behind Fernet Branca and how and how we do it, how we make it.
We have a beautiful museum down in Milan. If you have a chance come by, the tour is free. You come there, you can touch all their spices, you can actually touch the barrels and where we age the product, you have the smells of a young Fernet Branca and I don't think it has changed. We are evolving as a company because we're doing new things we are in digital advertisement, we do TV advertisement in Italy, but we're keeping our rules. Our way of producing the things. The same thing. There is still the same people, fifth generation working there, the herbs and turning them around and checking on them that when they arrive in the company are the highest quality, they smell them. And there is a room where we keep 26 of all the herbs and when you arrive there, it's like entering in a barrier of herbs that is really unbelievable.
So, the day is changing. I think the way that advertisement, but it's a changing world like as well, now it's drunk in cocktails. If you go behind 30 years, we were drunk practically only neat or with a couple of ice cubes. So that can evolve, but in means of as a company as us, we are the same old guys and you will have the same guy that we know when we're doing a tour down where we keep the canteen who start shouting and telling us that we are bothering him while he's working and don't come work or the barrels and being a crappy guy and it's good to be the same and we're not going to change for anybody.
So, you've just opened a new headquarters in midtown Manhattan. Do you want to tell us a little bit about that?
So, this is ... it's a really fun thing and it's something that I'm kind of very proud. The United States was the number one selling market in the world actually doing Prohibition, because we were not sold as an alcoholic product, but as a medicine. So for us it was an amazing period actually. And they say that my great, great grandfather, when probation finished, he was cursing for three days in a row because he does, I think the only alcohol producer in the world that wasn't happy about it.
And we used to produce our own spirits here in New York, actually in Manhattan. And we started to produce them in the 1940s and fifties actually we had our production facility that was open until 2001 and then during ... then after 2001 we had to close it because it was in the middle of the city. And so it could be dangerous. And so for us it's kind of going back to our roots and you know, for us it's very important not to have anymore a middle man and to be me saying and representing Branca and all the people that are my colleagues and people that I work with every day. When they have a business card that is written Branca and they're working with the family and we are all together. I think it was one of the most amazing things that you can say is to have your own company in a market that is important for us as the United States.
Next year will be the 175th anniversary. How is the brand celebrating?
There are a lot of things going on. Unfortunately I can not disclose that, but lets say we are going too party a lot next year
Other than Fernet Branca, you do have a number of other products. Do you want to tell us a little bit about each of those?
We have quite a few here. I would like to spend a couple of words only on two because I don't want to ... it's not we're going to stay here for the rest of the day. But I will start to speak with the Carpano Antica Formula that is a Vermouth. My father calls it the nectar of the gods and the best Vermouth you can ever have in your life when you have a Reverse Manhattan and you have a good Bourbon, a good Scotch inside. You need to have an amazing Vermouth with it because it will, if not, you will destroy the Manhattan and there's ... you will have notes of vanilla coming out. And on top of that actually, it was the first Vermouth ever created. And we can say that we are the creators of Vermouth and the first Vermouth was created by Giuseppe Carpano. And this is literally outstanding. And normally you can have it in cocktails. I drink it ... depending on the day I will have it as well as an aperitive over an ice cube and a slice of orange or if not, I will have it in a cocktail, in a Reverse Manhattan if has a boozy lunch at one. And if not, if it's a right, I will have at a regular and you can have it as well in a Negroni and that is beautiful and really changed. Normally what I do with this product, it's just blind tasting. When I have a guy that comes to me and is like ‘I’ve never tasted Antica Formula’ and I say, "Let's do it in a cocktail". I'll put him a Negroni with another Vermouth and a Negroni with our Antica formula. The guy will immediately see the difference and immediately fall in love with the product of Antica Formula. And inside there you will have 30 different spices and roots and it's really, really unique. We have white wines that we buy from centre of Italy and Sicily that are outstanding and a little bit more high on the alcohol, so we don't need to fortify too much the wine because it have already an alcohol content that is strong.
To pick one product that I will like and like to speak about is Caffe Borghetti. Caffe Borghetti is a typical espresso liqueur. So we use two espresso beans, two different beans: Arabica and Robusta come from South America and Africa. Then we bring them at three. We have a giant espresso machine where we do the espresso, concentration of espresso. Inside of this concentration of espresso, normally when it comes out, if you take a small espresso cup and you drink it, two chances, or you'll have a heart attack or you stay awake for a couple of days and then we add sugar and water and then we'll let it rest for two months and then we bottle it. It is very simple. But a lot of people don't realize when they drink coffee based liqueurs, they don't have coffee inside. They have the aroma of the coffee and what they do is, if you go home tonight and you buy yourself a bottle of Caffe Borghetti and you take a bottle of vodka or as one without, but if you want to do an Espresso Martini, put vodka and the Caffe Borghetti you shake it and then you pour it in a glass. So what will happen is you will have a form on top and that form will be given by the simple oils of the coffee beans, and that's something that really gives you the premiumness of the product and how good it is and the quality.
Thank you, Eduardo for taking time to speak with us today. Hopefully with any luck, we'll speak to a little bit more next year when it's a 175.
Of course whenever you want
For more information on Fernet Branca go to fernetbranca.com