I was on a treacherous hiking journey in Patagonia years ago, heading toward San Carlos de Bariloche in Argentina. My group had been slogging its way through the unforgiving, but staggeringly-beautiful Andes Mountains for four days, our bodies weary and sustained by only powdered meals and bewildering views of glaciers and crystal lakes that pepper Nahuel Huapi National Park. We were on a cliff-side switchback and approaching a clearing, the blisters encased by my now-worn Salomon boots screaming, when I saw the village we’d been heading for looming over the misty lago. Forty adrenaline-powered moments later, and I was sitting in what felt like an ancient Argentinian cantinera, when a bearded, barkeep asked me if I’d like to be cured of my woes. I said, “Yes, of course,” as my body ached, and he handed me a neat pour of midnight-colored liqueur from a mysterious long-necked bottle.
That was the first time I tasted Fernet.
Ahhhh, I can’t keep this up. That’s a made-up story, Joey Tribbiani style, to help you understand the mystical, delicious and enchanting nature of my favorite digestif liqueur. Coveted by many, and even hated by some, Fernet comes in many forms, brands and styles — Fernet Branca being the most common in cocktail bars. But no matter your relationship to the Italian amaro spirit, there’s no denying it leaves quite the impression.
Fernet is made from various herbs, commonly including myrrh, rhubarb, cardamom, chamomile, saffron, ginseng and more (full recipes are kept secret). Its botanical makeup bears similar consistency to Jägermeister and packs quite the lingering, bitter kick. Some say it tastes like black licorice, and it’s believed to aid in digestion, hence the digestif appellation. Nevertheless, this famed, favorite drink of Argentinians for generations has now evolved into the darling of the bar and restaurant community in America, and Louisville’s industry folks are no exception.
“Fernet Branca is the spirit and embodiment of socialization. There is something very communal about it. If you are alone at a bar and ask for a shot of Fernet, someone will almost always do it with you, and, in that, you form a bond,” said Dante Wheat, former beverage director at the Butchertown Social. Wheat recently took a new position running the distillery bar at Michter’s, so his family of friends at Butchertown Social threw him a farewell bash, spotlighting none other than the herbaceous delight: “Fernet About Friday, it’s a MichThursday to Remember; a Dante Wheat Story.” The party was even sponsored by his beloved Fernet.
I’m telling y’all, the Fernet is a-flowing amongst the barkeeps.
Once, my friend Jeremiah took an order of four Fernet Branca shots and promptly asked the customers where they bartend. But, also, many creatives in the community are concocting delicious fernet creations for the masses.
Chik’n & Mi boasts one of my favorites on its brunch menu, the Tainted Love, which is a delightful fernet/coffee cocktail that consists of Fernet Branca, Carpano Antica, cinnamon syrup, a strong cold brew and cranberry bitters.
Meander into The Limbo, Louisville’s new(ish) and quintessential tiki lounge, for a riff on a classic Singapore Sling made of New Amsterdam Gin, Fernet, pineapple and lime.
Meta even devised a quirky libation based on what bartenders drink, the Secret Handshake, which included Old Grandad Bonded, Fernet Contratto, Cynar and a mezcal rinse. What’s Dante Wheat’s favorite way to drink it? Fernet and coke with a dash of salt, or a margarita with Fernet in place of the tequila.
Kyle Higgins, U.S. Brand Ambassador for Mala Idea Mezcal, shared a delectable recipe for a Fernet Old Fashioned, marrying the trending amaro with the official cocktail of Louisville. Higgins suggested equal parts Fernet and a spicy rye whiskey, half an ounce of demerara syrup and a few dashes of old fashioned bitters.
“Shake the hell out of it for a bit of dilution and serve back over ice with some mint and orange peel garnish,” said Higgins. “Easy drink to riff and play with proportions. I like ‘em.”
There you have it, friends. A cocktail for home. A creative quest of a local bar crawl. A new spirit to love or acquire a taste for…
It’s my baby, Fernet. Cheers!