In San Francisco, Fernet Branca was our Vegemite. By that I mean it was a drink that we didn’t necessarily love ourselves, but we loved using to haze newcomers and outsiders. “Here, try this,” we’d say, and then have a good laugh at the noob’s face as they gulped down a bitter black blast of 28 herbs (this is exactly how Australians use Vegemite, in case you missed the analogy — I’ve always suspected they like using it to f*ck with you more than they actually enjoy eating it).
I don’t know why Fernet Branca, a 175-year-old drink from Milan, was big in San Francisco. Elsewhere it’s sort of an “industry” shot, that bartenders use like a secret handshake. The first time I had it, I thought it tasted like Scope mixed with grass clippings. “Medicinal” is the most obvious description (obvious because herbaceous spirits were literally intended as medicine, to aid digestion, cure indigestion, and God knows what else).
But I’ve been getting into cocktails during the quarantine, and I was shocked at how much slightly upgrading the things you mix the booze with (a technical term) — the vermouth, syrups, etc. — elevates your drinks. So when I got invited to do a Zoom tasting with Fernet’s brand ambassador, I was curious how the old SF Vegemite might fit into the classy cocktail world. Fernet as a drink has an anchovy quality to it — it’s so intense and funky that I figured there must be some great way to use it in cocktails. The same way a little anchovy or anchovy paste adds a whole new dimension to so many foods and sauces, like caesar dressing or Worcestershire.
During that Zoom, the Fernet Old Fashioned was a fun standout. All those herbs in the Fernet (saffron, cinnamon, linden, myrrh…) add a layer to the complexity of a boozy-sweet Old Fashioned. It kind of reminds me of the Old Fashioned equivalent of a Fall or Winter ale — the normal thing but with a layer of mulled wine-type spices that warm you up when the weather starts getting cold. The recipe below came from Felipe Muñoz, bartender at Sweetleaf Cocktail Bar in New York City. He calls his a “Luthier,” after Les Luthiers, an Argentinian comedy band.
- Take two “coins” of fresh ginger
- Add a few drops of bitters (Muñoz had some kind of fancy chocolate bitters; I only had regular old Angostura but they seemed to work fine)
- Lightly muddle (I don’t own an honest-to-God muddler but the end of a wooden spoon works fine)
- Add ice
Then pour in:
- 1/2 ounce maple syrup (Muñoz had grade D, the real dark stuff, but again I used the plain old grade A I keep in the fridge for pancakes)
- 3/4th ounce Fernet Branca
- 1 and 1/2 ounce bourbon
- Pour over a bourbon glass with ice, garnish with an orange peel
It’s just a slight twist on your usual Old Fashioned, with an added hint of Fall flavors like cinnamon, and a soupcon of mulled wine warming spice. Yeah, that’s right, I said “soupcon.” I’m a fancy cocktail drinker now!