A History of Fernet-Branca

Count Niccolò Branca | Courtesy of Fernet-Branca
Count Niccolò Branca | Courtesy of Fernet-Branca

When you’ve been around for over 170 years, you accrue some good stories. For example, you might buck the Law by selling your spirit (legally) during Prohibition, or be privy to a closely guarded recipe you can never share. There might even be a legendary origin if, as company lore tells it, your founder claimed his recipe originated from a Swedish chemist whose entire family lived impossibly far into their hundreds. To hear those tales, you'll have to chat with Count Edoardo Branca, the sixth-generation scion of Fratelli Branca. 

But first...

Courtesy of Fernet-Branca

What is Fernet-Branca, anyway?

Start with a base of distilled spirit. Add flavoring and sweeteners to it, and that liquor becomes a liqueur. Within liqueurs,  you’ll find the class of extremely flavorful, high-ABV liqueurs known as bitters.

Amari are an order of Italian bitters -- technically no real difference exists between bitters and amari, but the latter tend to stand alone as their own drink. Amari can be sipped neat, rather than used solely as cocktail additives. In fact, amari are almost universally consumed as digestifs (small, after-dinner drinks). Fernet-Branca is much less sweet than other digestifs and even other amari.

Got that? Liquor > liqueur > bitters > amaro > fernet > Fernet-Branca

But what goes into Fernet-Branca? That’s the 171-year question. Back in 1845, Bernardino Branca concocted what is in all likelihood the first fernet, so called because he claimed his vitality elixir was the work of a (quite literally) legendary Swedish chemist, Dr. Fernet.

Whatever its origins, only the head of Fratelli Branca knows the full recipe. Count Niccolò Branca di Romanico, the current CEO and chairman (and, hey, father of Edoardo), buys many of the ingredients himself, and mixes the five most secret ones in a sealed room.

The recipe is passed on to the next generation over a slow process. “You sit down in a rito di pasaggio,” explains Edoardo. Father (or on one occasion, mother) takes son into the company’s secure room where the most secret ingredients are mixed. He shows the next generation the ingredients, the measurements, and the techniques to process them. The father continues to do this, and over time the older generation withdraws from the process and says, according to Edoardo, “'Now you are in charge of the formula.' It’s a very slow transition. But the first time is very emotional.”

The company lives by its motto, “Innovate, but keep”

Also translatable as “Renew but preserve,” Novare serbando isn’t just something cute the company prints on its labels. When Bernardino’s son Stefano died young in the 1870s, his widow, Maria Scala Branca, took up the business for herself. “She was one of the first female entrepreneurs in Europe,” Edoardo says proudly of his great-great-grandmother. “She didn’t care a lot about her status as a countess. She was selling Fernet-Branca in the market. She was very strong-willed.”

Fratelli Branca continually innovates its technology (but preserves its process) to produce its beloved product in a conscionable way. Since becoming CEO, Niccolò has “tried to put emissions and pollution practically to zero,” says Edoardo, adding that the company is “being certified by the Italian government” for the sustainability measures implemented of its own accord in 2006.

To that end, he notes the ingredients “are all natural” and Fratelli Branca holds all foreign suppliers to their own standards concerning the environment and labor, or there’s no business to be done. “Being a family business, it’s very important to give back and have a good company with values.”

And if one day they don’t? Edoardo chuckles, “We have our name on the bottle, and our address so you can find us if we do something wrong.”

Count Edoardo Branca | Courtesy of Fernet-Branca

Not everybody can handle it... but bartenders love it

Fernet-Branca is known as “the bartender’s handshake,” because its powerful flavor is an industry greeting. When one bartender serves another, two shots of Fernet-Branca are usually poured on the house and raised in a toast. 

The common conception is that the drink was popularized because expert alcohol palates are required to appreciate its strong flavor. But Edoardo has his own theory about how his product became the barman’s nip of choice. “Normally the bar owner was not looking at that bottle of Fernet-Branca,” he says, “so they could have a couple of drinks from the bottle and the owner would never know.”

It has its own drinking game...and you’re always playing it

Oh, you don’t know about the challenge coin?

Fernet-Branca ambassadors give out challenge coins to influential bartenders. The coins' designs are regional by market, and there is a rare one released for the company's 170-year anniversary. 

It works like this: when two or more coinbearers are out drinking, one of them lays her coin on the bar to call for a round of Fernet-Branca. Everyone else must do the same. If any persons present don't have their coin, they buy that round. If everyone presents coins, the challenger loses her bet and must pick up the round herself. 

There are rules. The coin must be within reach. It can’t be passed on, and "I lost it,” doesn't excuse you from playing. Once you’re in, you’re in (and you'd better hope your local rep replaces your lost one). 

It’s not all numismatics, though. Some “unique people and bars” get a genuine silver bottle of Fernet-Branca. But the rarest Fratelli Branca artifact can only be earned one way, according to the Count: “When you’ve been working for the company more than 20 years, we give a special medal for that. We give away quite a few because in our company we have a lot of people that have been working here for generations. And it’s something that we’re very proud [of].”

Courtesy of Fernet-Branca

There’s a proper way to drink it

And no, it’s not from a silver bottle, but that’s good, too. Fratelli Branca recommends drinking their product neat in three sips: the first is a challenge, the second an intrigue, the third is all pleasure. Notes of colombo, aloe, and gentian give the first sip its heat and bitterness. But with those still on your tongue, the second one gives way to the zedoary and chamomile, which lend the drink a spicy air of licorice. The third one, fulfillment, is bitter again, with the myrrh coming to the forefront.

How did the company come to this process? When the company tried to introduce its drink to first-time drinkers, “The bitterness was too strong,” says Edoardo, and “people were rejecting it immediately. We said if you have the three sips, your palate adjusts to the bitterness more gradually. People can understand the taste and appreciate all the different flavors inside Fernet-Branca.”

Slow sipping may explain why Fernet-Branca was sold legally during Prohibition. Its perceived medicinal value led drinkers to imbibe at a slower pace than other alcoholic beverages. That, combined with the drink's history as an elixir, made it seem less like a refreshment and helped circumvent the alcohol laws. In fact, you could get it in Italian pharmacies until the 1940s as a cure for night-sweats, cramps, and other ailments.

Courtesy of Fernet-Branca

Every bottle is full of secrets

What gives Fernet-Branca its bitter, minty flavor? Tough to say, chum, when it contains 27 natural “roots, plants, and flowers.” Fratelli Branca is surprisingly open about what those are. Its known ingredients are aloe ferox, gentian, saffron (the company buys so much of the world’s saffron that it actually affects the spice's market price), Chinese rhubarb, chamomile, galangal, myrrh, laurel, cinchona, zedoary, bitter orange, laraha, cardamom, cornflower, peppermint oil, juniper, bay leaf, angelica, colombo root, and orris root (derived from the iris flower).

Some of the herbs are boiled, then left to settle for a month. Others go into a cold centrifuge. The processed herbs are combined in brandy, where they’ll blend in a 50,000-liter tank for 20 days. After that, they’re moved to smaller barrels made of Slavonian oak, where they’ll rest for a year while the aloe matures. The rest of the ingredients hang out, checking their watches and saying “Come on, aloe!”

If you’re wondering about those remaining elements, they’re rumored to include linden, sage, gentian root, and St. John’s wort, but don’t get sad that you’re still a few ingredients short. Fernet-Branca could release the full list and your homemade batch would still be garbage: the proportions and production methods heavily affect the final flavor.

In fact, the company keeps a collection of imitations produced by competitors on display in Milan, like a trophy case of relics from dead warriors who tried to claim the throne. Why did they even try to copy it? The real deal is right in front of you and far easier to acquire.

It’s as much a heritage as a business

“I have to tell you the truth,” says Edoardo. “I never wanted to work in the company. The first eight years, I worked for the banking system. Step by step, my father taught me the values and the legacy. When I entered the company I was very proud. I saw so many things the family has done over the generations. I really understand the tradition and what my father was carrying on.”

But even a young count gets treated just like everyone else. Edoardo had to grind the same as all the other employees. “It’s a tough job. You’re always on a plane,” he admits, but his complaints were met with gentle rebuke. His father brought him to a map of the company’s distribution a century and a half ago, and said, “Look, Edoardo, this is where we were selling in only 1872. Practically all around the world! Imagine the portfolio managers back then doing your job, taking a boat and spending six months abroad and then coming back home.”

Reflecting back on this, Edoardo laughs. “Ah! Maybe you’re right.”