Have you ever loved a drink so much that you’d consider having it tattooed on your chest? I’m not talking about a cocktail like a Martini (probably would), Manhattan or Margarita – but an actual drinks brand? Well, that is the power of Fernet-Branca. Take a quick scroll through the Italian amaro brand’s Instagram page and you’ll find it peppered with posts of its loyal, dedicated fanbase: some are posing proudly with their Fernet tats (among them the famous eagle and globe logo, and Fernando, the brand’s alligator mascot), others are downing miniatures on their wedding day in the desert or dressing their dogs up in branded paraphernalia.
Fernet isn’t just a drink – it’s a community, a not-so-clandestine club, and – for want of a better phrase – a state of mind. It’s a hit with the international bartending community. Often labelled the ‘bartender’s handshake,’ Fernet-Branca has been pedestalled all the way from San Francisco, arguably the genesis of its cult-following, to Argentina, where it has become something of a national drink; you’ll even find it on tap, from The Griffin pub in London’s Shoreditch, to Tokyo’s new Tokyo Confidential, where Fernet-loving founder Holly Graham has the first one installed outside of Europe. And, of course, the UK is also on the Branca bandwagon, with the owners of pubs, bars and restaurants evangelising this often-divisive drink in many different forms. So, how did a herbal liqueur from Milan become the dark darling of the drinks world?
A quick bit of Fernet-Branca history to set the scene: it all began in 1845 with Bernardino Branca, a so-called alchemist who made the bitter alongside parent company Fratelli Branca as a herbal remedy for cholera. It caught the attention of Father Nappi, who was in charge of the local hospital, and it soon began to grow in popularity as a cure for ailments like stomach-aches and nerves. It’s technically an amaro, which is an Italian bitter, and is made up of 27 ingredients, including cinchona, rhubarb, camomile, cinnamon, saffron, galangal and myrrh. It’s as enigmatic as it is loved: the exact recipe is said to be locked in a safe, to which only the chairman has the key. Intrigue, indeed.
It may have been born in Italy, but it has been bred around the world. Specifically, in 1860 it was commercialised in Argentina (where a majority of the population claimed Italian heritage) and a factory was opened in Buenos Aires in 1935. Fernet con Cola is now ubiquitous with Argentinian drinking culture – it’s said that Argentinians consume more than three times the amount consumed on home soil in Italy.
It all began in 1845 with Bernardino Branca, a so-called alchemist
Building a community
Perhaps its most important watershed moment in the bartending community, however, began in San Francisco, where, today, 70% of its consumption in the US goes down. Someone who has a good knowledge of its industry appeal there is Antoinette Cattani who was professionally slinging Fernet-Branca at bartenders during the late nineties. Having moved from LA to San Francisco to take on the brand, she took what was already a bit of a bartender’s secret and magnified it.
“There was such a love for Fernet here that had been behind the bar for 40 years,” she tells me of the passing down of Fernet to new bartending generations. “The magic just started happening. I was doing probably 25 events a month with guys and girls promoting it and working with the distributor. I was so obsessed with it, there was so much passion, it was so contagious and all about the bartenders. I had 35-50 of the best bartenders in San Francisco and we just went crazy with it.”
Budgets weren’t big but Cattani shifted samples, did discounts and held industry nights in dive bars, tying Fernet-Branca together with music and art: “I went to the places no-one else wanted to go.” With bartenders recommending the drink to their customers and an injection of budget in the early 2000s, she could do things on a much bigger scale, rewarding bars with parties, throwing huge Roaring 20s events and building the legacy of the Fernet-Branca we know today: “I had Fernet tunnel vision, all day, every day.”
The brand continued evolving and in 2007 (Cattani had since left) it launched its now famous BarBack Games in San Francisco, where barback teams of two compete in a series of work-related challenges with the backdrop of an audience, DJs and high-octane activities (this competition now takes place all over the world and London bar Callooh Callay took the 2023 title). Then there’s the Fernet Coin. Created in San Francisco in 2013, they act as an almost ‘members club’ card, where a bartender in possession can place it atop a bar for a free shot of Fernet-Branca. If the bartender also produces one, they both take a shot. The limited-edition coins have to be earned, and owning one has become a sport among the global bar community, with many carrying their coin with them wherever they go.
Fernet’s ability to bring bartenders together was something Pennyroyal in Cardiff’s owner Alex Taylor saw as valuable during the Covid-19 pandemic. “I’ve always been a fan, but after the first lockdown in the brief summer period in 2020 there was a lack of new staff and we needed to bring back camaraderie in Cardiff,” he explains to me of Fernet’s enduring role as a unifier. “Fernet makes you feel like you’re in a club, and we wanted to bring that back to hospitality and make them feel special for doing a job that is often unloved.”
London love affair
Some of London’s most revered names in the worlds of both bartending and cheffing have been Fernet-Branca diehards for years, and, in some cases, decades. Taking a dose of Fernet-Branca has been a morning ritual of St JOHN’s Fergus Henderson for many years. He was introduced to it one morning, when he watched his father, Brian Henderson, fix himself a drink after a rather heavy night. “He perked up so remarkably that Dr Henderson appeared on the St. JOHN cocktail list the following day.”
The Dr Henderson cocktail – two parts Fernet-Branca, one part crème de menthe, served over a large ice cube – has gained its own cult following (you can even buy it by the bottle from the restaurant’s website). It certainly peps you up when you’re feeling really rather worse for wear – something, perhaps, to do with Fernet-Branca’s apparent medicinal qualities. “I can trace its path through my body – ping!” says Henderson. “Like a human pinball machine, working its magic as it goes. Fernet has magical quantities to revive and restore.” Bartending legend Brian Silva, most recently of the iconic Rules restaurant in Covent Garden, has also had a longstanding relationship with the brand, dating back to 1984.
“I was working at the Colonnade Hotel in Boston,” he tells me of where it all began. Not yet a fully-fledged bartender, he was asked to go to the lobby and take a drinks order for the general manager and a guest. “Well, I got the guest’s order no problem – a G&T – but when the GM told me his order I couldn’t understand him… I asked him to repeat his order, and still not knowing what he wanted I simply mimicked what he asked for the bartender.”
The order turned out to be a Fernet-Branca on the rocks – and that was Silva’s first time trying it. “Fernet was unique and I was intrigued that it was served after a meal to aid digestion.” The intrigue became a real appreciation when he was asked for a cocktail by none other than the Countess Branca, a descendant of Bernardino Branca, for whom Silva made a Black Mojito – Zacapa rum, Fernet-Branca, green Chartreuse, lime, agave, mint, and soda.
London's most revered names in bartending have been Fernet-Branca diehards
Mixing it up
Fernet-Branca has also played an important role in London’s bar scene for as long as a century – perhaps most notably in the Hanky Panky, created by the American Bar at The Savoy’s first woman head bartender Ada Coleman 100 or so years ago. Fast-forward to 2023 and bars up and down the UK are using Fernet-Branca in interesting ways to satisfy increasingly bitter palates and frame the amaro category in new lights. From the palate-prepping signature Fernet + Chinotto at Hackney Road’s Equal Parts, to the woody and earthy Bourbon Pick-Me-Up at Velvet, and the Earl Henderson digestif from Hawksmoor (an ode to Henderson), there are plenty of ways in which bartenders are transferring their love of Fernet-Branca from behind-the-bar to the drinkers on the other side.
Over at Notting Hill’s Latin America-inspired Viajante 87, Pietro Collina and Veronica Di Pietrantonio are turning mere mortals into Fernet lovers by paying homage to a popular Cordoban drink – the 90210 – named for its measurements being nine-tenths Fernet-Branca, two ice cubes and one tenth Cola. “We wanted to recreate it and make it a little bit more palatable and refreshing, not such a polarising drink,” explains Collina of their version’s inception.
He took inspiration from a New Orleans cocktail containing Fernet-Branca called the Prizefighter, a smash-style drink which uses a split base of Fernet-Branca and vermouth, to make the Viajante 90210. Alongside that, Empirical’s Ayuuk spirit and lemon and mint, it’s a homemade ingredient which pulls this drink into focus. “We basically made our own cola syrup, which is a combination of things like tonka bean, cacao, coconut chips, all these types of things to kind of highlight more of the chocolatey, vanilla tones of Coca Cola.” Considering Di Pietrantonio’s Italian heritage, it’s reflective of a shift in generational tastes. “My father would love Fernet after dinner, but for me, it’s a bit too much. But Fernet is such an institution, so we love having it on the menu.”
Up in Cardiff, Pennyroyal actually uses Fernet-Branca’s younger, minty-er sibling, Branca Menta in its I Need Smoke cocktail. It was created by Taylor as a riff on (or as he says, a way of fixing) a Last Word cocktail. “I went with Branca Menta because it has a good fighting chance in that drink, it can stand up to maraschino and mezcal. When you have a drink that is entirely big, bold flavours they all calm down and become one as an equal parts number.” Infusing the maraschino with blackcurrant combined with the menthol character of the Branca Menta gives it a recognisable, maybe nostalgic, edge. Fernet-Branca’s bartender love-in shows no signs of dwindling. But the way in which bartenders are using it in-front of the bar extends an invitation to join them in their fun and engage with the brand. Perhaps Silva puts it most economically: “It’s versatile, it’s a bit louche, it’s delicious.”