“Fernet Branca is like the truth. Nobody likes the truth at the beginning. But once you get it, you’ll love it forever,” declared Marco Fois of Fratelli Branca Distillers, producers of the bitter Italian amaro that has gained a reputation in the bartending inustry as the “bartender’s handshake”.

Amaro is an Italian bitter herbal liqueur, and Fernet Branca is arguably the most famous of them all. Invented in 1845 by Bernandino Branca in Milan, the spirit is produced according to the original recipe of 27 herbs and ingredients, which has been passed down from one generation to the next, all the way to the current president of Fernet-Branca Niccolò Branca (who is said to personally measure the ingredients during the production process).

“It is an Italian amaro, which means bitter. It has more than 27 herbs and spices from all over the world except Australia,” Fois said.

According to him, Bernandino Branca was able to get all these botanicals back in 1845 because Milan was an important trading stop at the time.

“The recipe has been the same since then. If we even tried to change one ingredient, the product would be totally different,” he said.

Fernet Branca also produces the sweeter, mint-flavoured Branca Menta, which is made with the same base as Fernet Branca, and was created in 1960. “It is basically Fernet Branca, with added sugar and peppermint,” Fois said.

The company also went on to acquire several other companies, including Carpano, which makes the first vermouth ever, Antica Formula, created in 1786.

So how do you actually drink Fernet? The spirit is well known as the “bartenders handshake”, and it’s not uncommon to see people, patrons and bartenders alike, downing shots of the bitter liquid.

Fernet Branca

Marco Fois with the Fernet challenge coin, which bartenders use worldwide as a sort of ‘handshake’.

According to Fois, Fernet Branca can be drunk on its own, or used as an ingredient in drinks.

“It was initially created as a digestif, so you CAN drink it neat. In Italy, we eat a lot, and with the coffee, we would have an amaro,” he said. “Then the bartenders discovered the unique complexity of the product. They found it a beautiful liquid to play with, and to make fantastic cocktails with it.”

“The beauty of Fernet Branca is how versatile it is. You can drink it at room temperature, or with two ice cubes. Or with ginger beer, or a splash of soda. You can even add a shot of it in a beer to create a more aromatic flavour,” he said. “It is also very versatile in a cocktail – the Hanky Panky, the Toronto… you can even use it in a negroni.”

Fernet Branca for cocktails

According to him, because Fernet Branca is created with almost zero sugar, it makes it very useful in a cocktail.

“The bitter element is very important in a cocktail. You can’t just have the sweet part! The balance between sweet and bitter is very important,” he explained.

“Think of a cocktail as a house – the base spirit is the foundation, but the bitters and the vermouth are the people, who have parties inside the house!”

Ultimately, Fernet Branca is a very complex drink which is well-known for its versatility, he said.

“You won’t find just one or two flavours in it. You’ll get different flavours depending on how you are drinking it. It has 27 botanicals from four different continents, so every time you sip it, it is like a trip around those continents.

“This is the beauty of Fernet. Since the beginning, it has been an international product, because the ingredients come from all over the world!”

Michael Cheang prefers Fernet Branca with some soda, not in a shot. Drop him a note at the Tipsy-Turvy Facebook page (fb.com/mytipsyturvy) or follow him on Instagram (@mytipsyturvy).