The Bitter Beginning

Learning to love a bracing Italian liqueur

(Photo credit: Amy and Jonny Seponara-Sills)

Your first sip of Fernet Branca, an Italian liqueur, will be akin to waking up in a foreign country and finding a crowd of people arguing in agitated, thorny voices outside your hotel window. It’s an event that’s at once alarming and slightly thrilling, and leaves you wanting to know more. Other than that, it’s hard to describe what Fernet Branca tastes like; it mostly tastes like Fernet Branca. But to give you an idea: in 1960, Betsy von Furstenberg was suspended from Actors’ Equity for spiking Tony Randall’s onstage drink with it. Randall believed he had been poisoned with iodine.

That first sip may also strike you as uncommonly sharp and bitter, which is not surprising, since Fernet is a type of spirit called an amaro—Italian for “bitter.” (Other well-known amari, although less throat-catching than Fernet, include Ramazzotti, Averna, and Campari.) But Fernet’s defining bitterness is layered with complications, like a well-lived life.

I learned just how complicated last April, when the chairman of the company that makes Fernet, Niccolò Branca, showed me around his factory in Milan. The building is palazzo-like, with a grandeur that recalls a time when illustrations of factories were featured on company letterheads. At one point during the tour, Branca, an impeccably polite gentleman with enviable hair, opened the door to a dim, cavernous room and beckoned me in.

Here were acres of burlap sacks piled atop pallets and containing the 40 or so barks, roots, fungi, herbs, and spices that go into Fernet Branca. These include myrrh, gentian root, cinchona bark, orris root, zedoary, and saffron. To walk through the room is to reconnoiter a peculiar olfactory geography, crossing from the republic of one aroma into another, with the borderlands between the two sometimes under détente, but often not.

Branca’s great-great-grandfather conceived the original formula in 1845. “It was born as a medicine,” Branca said, and for decades Fernet was touted for its healthful effects. As recently as 1962, Suburbia Today recommended it for “overeating, flatulence, hangovers, gas pains, [and] lifting yourself off the floor when you’ve mixed oysters and bananas.”

Fernet Branca remains a popular cure for hangovers, and is often served as a digestif—something to sip after an overly generous dinner. One theory is that bitterness, typically associated with poison, cues the body to accelerate the production of saliva and digestive juices. This is considered a matter of known fact among many American herbalists and Europeans generally, but is greeted with skepticism by others. Nicholas Talley, a gastroenterologist at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida, told me there’s little data to support this. “It’s folklore, frankly,” he said. “You put anything in your mouth, and it increases the production of saliva and gastric acid.”

Well, maybe. But before discovering Fernet Branca, my usual solution for overeating was to lie on my back on the floor for 35 minutes. Fernet does the trick without my having to go horizontal, and in half the time.

Fernet is popular not only in Italy but in Argentina, where it’s usually mixed with cola, and in Germany, where, Branca told me, it’s mixed with Red Bull. (He followed this statement with a meaningful silence.) San Francisco accounts for about 25 percent of U.S. sales. R Bar, in the Tenderloin area, goes through some 100 bottles a month, and co-owner Tod Alsman says that about 95 percent is consumed as shots, often with a ginger-ale chaser. Why so popular in San Francisco but not in other cities that historically have had large Italian American populations? “Nothing really seems to explain it,” Alsman admits.

I’d be willing to wager that Fernet will spread beyond the Bay Area. The taste is big, and America is having an extended love affair with big flavors. And bitter, which had a heyday here in the late 19th century, seems to have a renewed allure. Think of Starbucks, Jägermeister, and those barbed, hard-to-swallow salad greens now found even at the Piggly Wiggly. This rediscovery is a good thing, extending the palette of our palates. Bitter is one of just five or six tastes that our receptors can perceive, and ignoring bitter is as ill-considered as a painter eschewing a primary color.

Spirits rarely have anything like a wine’s terroir—the industrial process of distillation tends to strip out nuance. But in Fernet Branca, I find something even more rare. Call it tempoir: the taste of a time that’s long since passed us by.