Monday, August 28, 2017

One for the Road... What the Fernet?

In "One for the Road", one of the guys takes a quick run at a topic for your reading pleasure. Themes will vary, from classic drinks to hand-crafted ingredients and creations of their own, or whatever suits them at the moment. For his first go around on the blog, A&T's newest contributor Pablo delves into an ingredient as incorrigible as he is: Fernet Branca.

In case you haven't noticed, David and John have been a touch delinquent with their posting around here of late. Just because they aren't writing about it doesn't mean they aren't still mixing drinks and talking about it behind the scenes on a regular basis. In fact, there's been an addition to those ongoing discussions (we have the What's App group to prove it), and he's ready to jump into the fray and shake this blog out of its doldrums. So without further ado, we welcome the shiny new addition to A&T: Pablo. 

Let's Get it On
Hi. I'm new here. My addition will probably be viewed in the same way Fernet Branca is viewed behind the bar... with disdain for its bitterness, misunderstanding, and ambivalence. So fittingly why not kick things off here with Fernet?

Growing up I visited family in Argentina regularly. On one of my last visits I went out with my cousin who was slightly older than me--he invited me out to dinner with his friends where instead of the typical asado which would be paired with endless wine and soda, we had salt baked fish paired with Fernet and Coke.

At 19 and in college my drinking experience was limited to wine (good wine when I was at home with my parents and more Boone's Farm when I was away at college), cheap beer, and cheaper liquor. So when I tried the de facto national drink of Fernet and Coke I was expecting something as cloyingly sweet as Captain Morgan's Spiced Rum and Coke. Fernet and Coke is not that--it's almost rum and Coke's antithesis. All I could do to choke down the Fernet was to keep adding more Coke with every sip.

If you're unfamiliar, Fernet is an Italian bitter. For ages I assumed it was an Argentine product with how popular it is there and historically speaking there is a strong link between Argentina and Italy but we're not here to discuss history... I don't think. Fernet is unlike other, better known bitters like Campari or Ramazzotti, which while still bitter also have a sweetness to them. Fernet is bitter with a strong herbal aroma and taste and if you've had it, almost reminiscent of "mate" or "yerba" also popular in Argentina and the region. From that initial taste at 19, I had avoided it until fairly recently, going so far as to giving away what I did keep with me from move to move.

A few years ago I was in El Salvador sitting at the hotel bar and ordered, originally, a Manhattan. As I watched the bartender prepare it I was caught off guard and confused when he reached for the Fernet, which he used in lieu of the traditional Angostura or any bitters for that matter. I didn't say anything because, well, I'm not a professional... I should barely even be here writing. But what the Fernet added was the needed bitterness but also a new depth of flavor that highlighted the sweetness of the rye. Instead of a Manhattan, what I apparently had was a Fanciulli.

When my aunt and uncle recently came from Argentina they brought with them a bottle of Fernet Branca... hello, darkness, my old friend. Aside from the Manhattan... now what?

The most popular cocktail with Fernet seems to be the Hanky Panky, which I tried tonight. There are of course variations of the Hanky Panky, which range from a couple of dashes of Fernet to a couple of ounces. Since the focus here is really on Fernet, I went towards the latter.

  • 1.5 oz gin
  • 1.5 oz Fernet Branca
  • 1 oz sweet vermouth
  • 2 dashes orange bitters
  • 1 spring of mint for garnish
  • Serve on the rocks... or don't.
All these parts work together, which is the point of any cocktail. The bitterness from the Fernet is offset by the sweetness from the, obviously, sweet vermouth combined with the aromatics and botanicals from the gin. The recommendation is for a gin with a strong juniper flavor but in this instance I used Jersey Spirits DSP.7 which has a smooth, anise-forward flavor and topped it with a sprig of mint. The gin, vermouth, bitters, and mint work together to highlight the best parts of the Fernet and subdue but don't overshadow the bitterness either.

For the sake of science, I also tried out a Toronto, which is a play on an Old Fashioned.
  • 2 oz rye
  • 1 oz Fernet Branca
  • 1/4 oz simple syrup
  • 2 dashes Angostura bitters

I used Four Roses bourbon, which is generally mild not only compared to rye but other bourbons in general. It still managed to hold up against the Fernet and was helped by the simple syrup and orange peel. Between the bourbon and the bitters, they again highlight the herbal notes of the Fernet while cutting into the bitterness.

If you're interested in trying Fernet, starting with Coke is a safe bet... in the right proportions, anyway (1 oz Fernet, 4 oz Coke on the rocks). 

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