Last month, a big winery threw an invitation-only screening in Toronto for the new documentary Somm, which chronicles the arduous preparation required for the master sommelier (MS) designation. The audience, filled with wine geeks, dutifully quaffed cabernet and chardonnay carried in from the reception. But the preferred tipple making the rounds in a coffee mug wasn’t high-end vino: It was the pungent, high-octane bitter Fernet-Branca, half a litre of which retails for between $15 and $30 in various provinces, and which has become the cult off-duty libation of industry insiders. Fernet’s appeal? Its complexity and, perversely, initial unlikeability. One wine-industry wag fondly describes it as “Satan’s mouthwash.”
The descriptor isn’t far off from the medicinal claims that accompanied Fernet when it was introduced in Milan in 1845. An 1865 newspaper ad referred to the “renowned liqueur” created by Bernardino Branca, whose family still produces it, as “febrifuge, vermifuge, tonic, invigorating, warming and anti-choleric”—trouncing fevers, intestinal worms and more. It even invented a “Doctor Fernet” who, along with his family, was reported to live past 100 due to imbibing the stuff.
Fernet’s practical value as a digestif is part of its appeal, says John Szabo, a Toronto MS and the author of Pairing Food and Wine for Dummies, who always keeps a bottle in his freezer: “Sommeliers spend a lot of time eating as well as drinking, and a Fernet at the end of the meal opens up the digestive tract in miraculous ways.” A bigger draw, he says, is Fernet’s complex flavour profile stemming from more than 27 ingredients, among them aloe, rhubarb, gentian, galangal, chamomile, cardamom, saffron, myrrh and elderflower. “We tend to gravitate away from sweeter, softer drinks to something more bitter and savory-based.” Then there is the fact that it’s hard-core, at 39 per cent alcohol. An oft-told Fernet legend has actress Betsy von Furstenberg being suspended from Actors’ Equity in 1960 for spiking co-star Tony Randall’s onstage drink with it; Randall believed he’d been poisoned with iodine. Szabo says Fernet’s intensity took him aback when he first tried it in the ’90s. “It’s not a beverage you try for the first time and fall in love,” he says.
Yet it’s precisely the effort required to appreciate it that has made it an industry darling. “The first time you try Fernet, there’s something quintessentially revolting about it,” says Harry Wareham, owner of Toronto restaurant Skin + Bones. “But I figured, all of those years of history, and everyone else can’t be wrong; there had to be a redeeming quality somewhere.” He now calls the amaro “my desert island beverage. It’s there after dinner, it’s there the next morning when you feel terrible about yourself for what you did the night before.” The drink is challenging in a way other amaros, like Cynar, aren’t, he says. “Fernet has such an intensely complex flavour; every time I nose it, I get something new. There’s a herbaceous, minty eucalyptus quality to it at the beginning, but what’s happening underneath, a cardamom spice market, is really interesting.”
Pasquale Orgera, the manager and sommelier of Toronto’s Barberian’s steak house, has been drinking Fernet since sneaking it as a teenager. “My grandmother’s maiden name was Branca, so my parents bought it but they never touched it,” he says. Its Buckley’s-like taste regulates imbibing, he says: “It’s so powerful, with every sip, you know you’re drinking.” Orgera has organized a weekly “Fernet about it Sunday” event for sommeliers. One attendee has become such a fan, he says, he’s getting a Fernet-Branca tattoo.
Vince Biscardi, of Toronto’s Majestic Wines, which imports the beverage, says sales have grown 22 per cent annually over the past two years, mostly from the growing popularity of Fernet in cocktails; Wareham reports the “Toronto”—rye, sweet vermouth, Fernet-Branca and Angostura bitters—is a big hit at his restaurant. Inquiries spiked last year after the amaro was mentioned in The Dark Knight Rises, Biscardi says; in the movie, Wayne Manor butler Alfred recollects ordering a Fernet-Branca at a café in Florence. He drank it straight up, just like the pros.