Allegedly it's a household name in Italy, but until a few days ago we had never heard of Fernet-Branca, an unusual liqueur we encountered at both Corsino, a fantastic Italian cantina on Hudson Street, and Vinatta Project, an excellent bar & restaurant on Gansevoort Street populated by friendly group of les français. Fernet-Branca is a dark, syrupy digestif that alternatively tastes like medicine, licorice and bittersweet spice.
Its taste is difficult to describe because Fernet-Branca is a difficult beverage to make.
The exact recipe is a guarded secret, but it contains at least 27 different herbs and spices and possibly as many as 40. Among the known ingredients are saffron, aloe, gentian root, rhubarb, gum myrrh, red cinchona bark, galanga and zedoary. (Fratelli Branca Distillerie is said to buy 75% of the world's annual saffron crop.)
The liqueur is produced by soaking the secret blend of ingredients in a neutral spirits base, very similar to vodka. After distillation the concoction is aged for a year in oak vats and then filtered and bottled. Fernet-Branca is 38%-45% alcohol, or 76-90 proof. The bottle we sampled at Corsino was labeled 39% and tasted very much like a herbaceous cough syrup.
In addition to Italy, the mysterious Fernet-Branca is incredibly popular in both the San Francisco Bay Area and Argentina, where it has its own theme song. Why? We have no idea.
Fernet-Branca is an acquired taste, to say the least, but once you've acquired it, we think you'll be hooked.