Fernet-Branca is one of those liqueurs that will surprise you at least once. For some people, it surprises them twice.
The first surprise is the initial taste. As mentioned in this San Francisco Weekly article, “If you can imagine getting punched squarely in the nose while sucking on a mentholated cough drop, you’ll have an idea of Fernet-Branca’s indelicate first impression”.
Or, as Tara said, “change ‘nose’ to ‘throat’, and they’ve got it right”.
It’s a unique spirit, to be sure. An Italian liqueur, made in Milano since 1845. The Italians, when they immigrated across the world, they took this drink with them. It’s why the drink is popular in San Francisco, Argentina and many other places throughout the world.
Much like many cult drinks, it has a vaunted secret recipe. It is reputed to have myrrh, rhubarb, chamomile, cardamom, aloe, and saffron, and a base of grape must. It is rumored to have codeine, mushrooms, fermented beets, coca leaf, gentian, rhubarb, wormwood, zedoary, cinchona, bay leaves, absinthe, orange peel, calumba, echinacea, quinine, ginseng, St. John’s wort, sage, and peppermint oil. Most of these are likely urban legend, there may be some truth in one or two of the aforementioned.
With the legends surrounding the liqueur, it’s common for some folks to use Fernet-Branca as both a spirit and a medicine.
My own opinion is that Fernet-Branca is that it’s a very complex and yet also a harsh drink. It has a very strong menthol aroma and taste. There is also a very distinct licorice flavor. Beyond that, it’s hard to pick out any other distinct ingredient.
It’s also a difficult drink to mix if you don’t know what you’re doing. Fernet-Branca is a bitter drink, which means that sweet beverages are probably the first place you should look for mixers. The best way I’ve found to drink this alcohol is to mix it with a cola. This also happens to be the most popular way to enjoy this spirit in Argentina. I’ve also had success with mixing it with ginger ale and a bit of grenadine.
All in all, it’s a good drink if you know how to handle it. It’s what I consider to be the antithesis of vodka.