If You Love Fernet-Branca, Try These Equally Funky Fernets
Unapologetically bitter, with a harsh, menthol quality akin to mouthwash, fernet doesn’t appeal to most people’s palates. But like most controversial booze, the liqueur has earned a dedicated cult following around the world.
Fernet originated in Milan, Italy, in the 1840s and is a category of intense aromatic liqueurs similar to amari but more aggressively bitter, robust and potent—typically clocking in around 40 percent ABV. The category is most often associated with the iconic Italian brand Fernet-Branca, which is made from a secret recipe of more than 27 herbs and spices that dates back to 1845. The brand is singularly responsible for spreading a love for the liqueur around the world—namely in Argentina, where the liqueur became so popular that the company built a second distillery in Buenos Aires to meet demand. In the early 2000s, Fernet-Branca also found massive popularity in the U.S.—particularly in San Francisco—where industry insiders refer to the liqueur as the “the bartender’s handshake.”
But the fernet category is so much more diverse than a single brand. If you can’t get enough of Fernet-Branca’s intense flavors, there are now a number of others on the market worth your attention. From classic Italian fernets to a wave of North and South American bottlings, here are eight fantastic brands to try.
Contratto Fernet ($36)
Based on a family recipe from the 1920s, this Italian fernet is intensely floral and aromatic. Made from a base of grappa, it’s macerated with more than 30 herbs and spices, including saffron, myrrh, chamomile, cardamom and rhubarb. Though less bitter than Fernet-Branca, Contratto has a complex floral sweetness that many others in the category lack. It’s best served straight after a heavy meal alongside a shot of espresso—or, if you have the room, with a pastry.
Luxardo Fernet Amaro ($25)
From the family-owned company responsible for creating the beloved maraschino liqueur, this little-known fernet has been in production since 1889. Infused with more than 15 herbs and botanicals, Luxardo Fernet is bold, full-bodied and plenty bitter on the palate, with a long finish of menthol and sharply cooling eucalyptus. It’s a delicious way to cool down on a hot night—just pour it over ice with soda water and add a citrus twist.
Fernet 1882 ($35)
It makes sense that liquor company Porta Hermanos staked out Córdoba, Argentina, as the home for the South American country's first fernet brand: Argentina consumes more than 75 percent of all fernet produced around the world and Córdoba is often referred to as the country’s fernet capitol, thanks in large part to the city’s Italian heritage. Dense, syrupy and deeply bitter, this fernet was made to be drunk the Argentinian way, with Coca-Cola over ice and a lemon wedge or twist.
Letherbee Fernet ($39)
With roots in Chicago, Illinois, Letherbee Fernet is one of the first craft, American-made interpretations of the original Italian digestif. Smoother and more refined than other fernets we’ve tried, Letherbee is almost velvety on the palate, with heavy whiffs of cardamom and spearmint. This liqueur is extremely versatile. It can be enjoyed on its own or in a variety of cocktails, including bright, spicy sippers like the Kentucky Mule or even with Champagne.
This variation on the classic fernet recipe hails from Hidalgo, Mexico, where it’s been produced since the 1860s. Created by French expat Henri Vallet, Fernet-Vallet is one of the most unique fernets available (and the only one made in Mexico). Fernet-Vallet has an onslaught of bitterness, with a woodsy, cigar box smell and a flavor best reserved for die-hard fernet lovers.
Original Fernet Vittone ($25)
This is the fernet that started it all. Created by Domenico Vittone in Milan, Italy, in 1842, it predates even Fernet-Branca and was first used as a medicinal elixir to aid digestion. Harnessing the healing properties of myrrh, the liqueur is macerated with more than 40 different herbs and botanicals. Staying true to its roots, Fernet Vittone has changed little over the past century and a half, and it’s one of the best fernets we’ve ever tasted. With a toned down bitterness that doesn’t bludgeon your palate, this fernet is complex and dense, with notes of cacao, candied mints, green tea and pine. Even after you’ve slurped it down, there’s a lasting silken texture on the palate accompanied by the cool burn of menthol and black licorice.
America's obsession with fernet started out with the devoted bartenders in San Francisco. After so many years of spreading the bitter word and serving shot after shot, it was only natural for the city to get its own variation on the Italian digestif. Made with a base of Falcon Spirits grape brandy and locally grown herbs, Fernet Francisco calls to mind the ever-popular Fernet-Branca. Herbaceous and bitter, with notes of eucalyptus, spearmint, coffee grounds, bay leaf and wet earth, this fernet focuses on robust flavor and fantastic quality.
Arcane Fernet ($40)
Arcane Fernet is an extremely limited American fernet distilled and infused in Brooklyn, New York, by distiller David Kyrejko of Arcane Distilling and Industry City Distillery. Kyrejko developed this interesting take on fernet after he was dared to attempt to recreate Fernet-Branca. Instead, he accidentally created one of the most unusual fernets on the market. Made with hops (Kyrejko is also known for his hopped whiskey), and vacuum infused with herbs and botanicals, this fernet is less bitter and more quaffable on its own than most others. On the palate there are the bitter orangey notes of gentian root, sarsaparilla, pecans caramelized in butter, and whispers of smoky oolong tea. If you come across a bottle at your liquor store, snatch it up while you still can.