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Understanding Fernet, bartenders’ shot of choice

Fernet is a form of Amaro—the family of bitter, herbal liqueurs made famous in Italy.

Greg Bollinger

Depending on who is describing it, Fernet either tastes like something your mom poured in your preteen mouth for dropping an F-bomb—or it’s a mysterious, complex indulgence meant for booze cognoscenti. Simply put, Fernet is a form of Amaro, the family of bitter, herbal liqueurs made famous in Italy. It’s not just any Amaro, though, because if you offer to buy your bartender a shot, there is a more than 50 percent chance they will choose Fernet.

“The taste of Fernet is an interesting aspect of liquor,” Ben Parham said. Parham is a barista-bartender at Topeca’s new downtown location in the Philcade Building on Boston Avenue. “It doesn’t take long to try most of the flavors we associate with liquor, but Fernet is unique, and it helps that the recipes are very old and mostly unknown.”

The degree to which Fernet producers are willing to be transparent about ingredients varies, but at its base, the liqueur is a distilled grape spirit with a range of botanicals. The Venn diagram of botanicals usually overlaps with rhubarb, cardamom, saffron, and chamomile, but mint, cinnamon, aloe, and gentian root are common. It would be a mistake to think it tastes like baking spices a la mulled wine, though. The flavor is much more intense, even pungent.

Noah Bush, owner of Hodges Bend and Topeca–Philcade, is also a fan of Fernet, and like most fans, he has a difficult time articulating what’s good about the liqueur. This is not unusual, by the way. Just try to articulate what is great about whiskey or wine or IPA. We all end up saying something like, “It’s really, you know, wine-y.”

“It’s either the best shot of the night or the worst shot of the night,” Bush said. “You have to be in the mood for it. I tell people it’s like the person who walks into the bar and one night you’re very much into him or her, and one night you’re not. That’s Fernet.”

Like wine, the Amaro is categorized as dry or sweet, but sweet is relative to the drink itself. In other words, if you order sweet Fernet, it’s never going to be soft-drink sweet, nor is it going to be cheap Riesling sweet.

“Letherbee Fernet is considered sweet,” said Scott Large, owner-founder of Provisions Fine Beverage Purveyors. “Specifically, it’s Chicago-style because they apparently prefer theirs a little syrupy. It’s very rich, unlike the dry ones, which can tend toward thin and acidic.”

Bush said that Fernet is typically a shot, but it’s also an ingredient in a few classic cocktails. Topeca–Philcade has the Hanky Panky on their cocktail list, a concoction that came from the Savoy in London in 1903. It’s a blend of gin, sweet vermouth, and Fernet. With nine different varieties on their back bar, customers can create dramatically different versions of the drink by choosing different varieties. Richer varieties make for a rounder mouthfeel, whereas dry Fernet like Royal Vallet can make the drink sharp and focused.

“Royal Vallet is made in Mexico by a French expatriate,” Large said. “It’s a fascinating story, and the dry character of the Vallet is definitely a different experience than Fernet Branca, the richer variety that dominates Central and South America.”

Large also recommended trying Vallet with a Topo Chico or other sparkling water. “Pour a little of the Topo Chico out and then add six to eight drops of Vallet. It’s like a dry Coca-Cola.”

Topeca–Philcade and MixCo both provide excellent opportunities to taste a range of Fernets side by side. Try the rich, almost caramelly notes of Townshend’s Fernet over against the minty—maybe event too minty, depending on your taste—bite of Fernet Menta. At good craft bars like Hodges Bend, MixCo, Topeca – Philcade, Doc’s, and Valkyrie, the bartenders are absolutely going to be able to walk you through the variations. To pick up a bottle of your favorite, head to Primo’s Fine Wine & Spirits. Their selection of Amari (the actual plural) is excellent.

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