A household name in Italy and a cult hit abroad, Fernet Branca is one of Italy's most enduring and unusual drinks. Its thick, bitter flavour and smell make it something of an acquired taste, but those who do like it often become dedicated fans.
Alcohol content seems to vary slightly by country, but we've seen Italian bottles with an alcohol content of 43% and 39%. (More recently, this seems to have settled at 39%.)
While other distillers produce their own versions of fernet, these have never achieved the popularity of the Branca drink, and the word "Fernet" usually implies Fernet Branca, especially outside Italy where you're very unlikely to come across another brand.
An exception to this is in Italian restaurants, which will often have a cheaper 'house brand' of fernet, so it's worth asking for Fernet Branca by name if that's the one you're after.
What exactly is Fernet Branca?
Fernet Branca is a dark, oily alcoholic drink similar to an amaro, but less sweet. The flavour might best be described as being a cross between medicine, crushed plants, and bitter mud. Like most strong drinks in Italy, Fernet is usually drunk at the end of the meal as a digestive aid. It's also a popular hangover cure when added to an espresso: you'll often hear people ordering a caffè corretto con Fernet in coffee bars on the way to work. (There's more about this on our coffee page.)
The exact recipe of Fernet Branca is a secret but the producers, Fratelli Branca Distillerie, do say that it contains 27 different herbs and spices taken from four continents. Among the known ingredients are aloe, gentian root, rhubarb, gum myrrh, red cinchona bark, galangal, camomile, cinnamon, saffron, iris, bitter orange, and zedoary (white turmeric).
The history of Fernet Branca
Fernet Branca logo
Fratelli Branca Distillerie claim that the recipe has remained unchanged since its invention in 1845. According to the company, Fernet was created by the "self-taught apothecary" Bernardino Branca.
The name "Fernet" comes from one Doctor Fernet, a fictional Swede with whom Branca originally shared the credit for his drink, presumably to add authority to claims of the drink's health benefits.
The logo, featuring an eagle poised over a globe, was designed in 1893 by Leopoldo Metlicovitz.
There were many, many health benefits claimed for Fernet Branca; in a sense, it's the world's most successful snake oil. A newspaper advertisement from 1865 claimed this "renowned liqueur" to be "febrifuge, vermifuge, tonic, invigorating, warming and anti-choleric", a drink which had furthermore helped the venerable Doctor Fernet (and several members of his family) to live for over a hundred years.It was also marketed as a cure for menstrual cramps.
The drink's numerous medicinal claims came in handy during the American prohibition; as a medicine, Fernet Branca was still legal.
Many people today claim that Fernet is an excellent digestive aid and hangover cure, just the thing to help you recover from a little over-indulgence.
Branca Menta and other drinks from Fratelli Branca
Fernet Branca itself is also available in a mint flavour, known as Brancamenta, although this has never quite attained the cult success of the unadulterated drink.
As well as the two Fernets, Fratelli Branca produce grappa under the brand names Candolini and Sensèa. They're also responsible for other drinks including Strevecchio Branca brandy and a liquor called Caffè Borghetti.
Fernet Branca has gained great popularity in Argentina, where it's often drunk with cola, and even has its own song, 'Fernet con Coca' by Vilma Palma. It's also very popular in San Francisco, where it's often drunk with a ginger ale chaser.