What does Fernet Branca taste like? “Imagine a Negroni’s nightmare and you’re not far off,” says Frank Fellows, a chef who’s had more shots of Fernet Branca than you’ve had hot dinners. Frank is the Frank behind Frank’s Vegan Kitchen and one of the many pan shakers out there who enjoys a Fernet at the end of every service. “The first time I drank Fernet was after my first meal at St John Bread & Wine,” Frank tells Mob, “the chef told me it would help after I’d inhaled so much bone marrow.” Speaking as a man who has eaten too much bone marrow on more than one occasion, I can confirm that chef was right.
Bartenders and restaurant staff like Frank tend to knock back Fernet-Branca as a post-shift drink. It’s become so synonymous with kitchens that its reputation as a chef’s treat has entered the wider realm of popular culture. Empty bottles of Fernet-Branca are seen scattered across the kitchen area in FX’s The Bear – a savvy signifier of verisimilitude from the set designers looking to give the restaurant of their television show a much-needed sense of realism. There’s even an episode of Munchies’ popular YouTube series Chef’s Night Out with New York-based chef Helen Nguyen where her main aim of the night is to “Fernet about it” and drink as much of the amaro as physically possible. By the end of the raucous evening, Helen and her crew had polished off 10 bottles. Not a bad effort.
First created by amateur herbalist Bernardino Branca in 1845, Fernet Branca was initially marketed as a cure for cholera, stomach ache, and a medley of other nervous disorders. That savvy marketing worked in the drink’s favour and Fernet eventually found its way into various hospitals at the time, administered by doctors hoping to stimulate hunger in sick patients who had lost their appetites. Although most of those medicinal claims have now been largely debunked, Fernet is still a delicious serve that’s rightfully earned its place in the hearts and minds of hospitality workers.
One of the reasons Fernet is beloved by those who work in food is that its supposed digestive properties make it a kinder drink on the gut than harder spirits or beer. Those sorts of factors become important to consider when a big part of your job involves consuming an endless stream of rich and delicious food. Sweet, herbal, and bitter all at once, Fernet is the perfect palate cleanser. It looks and tastes a bit like you’re drinking a blitzed-up Christmas tree – minty candy canes and all – and that whisper of bark, and the cooling mouthfeel it leaves you with, is what separates Fernet from the rest of the amaro taking up space on your favourite dive bar’s shelves.
“The first time I drunk Fernet I was shocked by the strong minty flavour. It almost tasted like mouthwash! It definitely takes a while and many tries to enjoy it fully,” admits Sharon Carrara, the bar manager at Bottle & Rye wine bar and restaurant in Brixton. “I think chefs love the complexity of this drink with its botanical notes. After tasting food all day, a nice glass of fernet helps clean the palate and has a refreshing taste,” she continues, “I’d describe it as minty, refreshing, and quite strong. I love how it’s not heavy on your palate, either – you almost feel like it cleans your mouth and makes your stomach ready for another meal.”
It’s definitely an acquired taste but Fernet is one of the few bitters on the market with almost zero sugar content. So, maybe Bernardino Branca’s original health claims do hold some water. St. JOHN co-founder Fergus Henderson is another man that swears by Fernet’s health benefits and uses it as an ingredient in his signature ‘Dr Henderson’ cocktail – a drink comprised of Fernet, Crème de Menthe, and ice that Ferguson claims to be the ultimate hangover cure and “the perfect tipple to follow a night of overindulgence”. At 45% ABV, it’s punchy stuff. But what’s it actually made of?
According to official courses, the Fernet Branca recipe is made of a mélange of 27 herbs, roots and spices. The exact ratio of those ingredients remains a closely guarded secret but some of the most notable include rhubarb, camomile, cinnamon, peppermint oil, and saffron. It’s that combination of peppermint oil and saffron which gives Fernet its toothpaste-adjacent menthol flavour. Some sources claim that the Branca family is responsible for an estimated 75% of the world’s saffron consumption, controlling the market price of it like the spice mined on Arrakis in Frank Herbert’s Dune.
While it's predominantly popular with those in the hospitality industry here in the UK, Fernet’s appeal goes far and wide. It’s hugely popular in Argentina, of all places, where they mix the liquid liberally with Coca-Cola. You’ll find that cocktail, commonly known as ‘fernet con coca’ or ‘fernando’, consumed all across the South American country. It’s such a staple of Argentinian drinking culture that the country consumes more than 75% of all fernet produced globally.
It’s hard to pin down what it is about Fernet Branca that makes it so popular but there’s no denying that it is. Maybe it’s its cult appeal. Maybe it’s its digestive properties. Maybe, like Frank tells me, it’s because “it’s strong and bitter like all of as the end of a week of doubles.”