Fernet vs. Amaro

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The Contentious Question

My server was recently asking me to differentiate a Fernet from an Amaro for a customer. While not a difficult task, it’s a highly contentious subject wrought with troll wars on the internet and purists dedicated to the idea that one cannot be the other and anyone who says otherwise is full of bologna. I’m in the same camp as Brad Parsons who wrote the book, Amaro: The Spirited Word of Bittersweet, Herbal Liqueurs, that Fernet is a subcategory of Amaro, the broad category of bitter, herbal liqueurs.

Original Fernet Branca ad from 19th century newspaper

It’s taken me a while to like Fernet. I remember 10 years ago, before it was a regular conversation in my life, my dear friend would drink Fernet every night and force me to take a sip. It immediately set my tongue on fire and made me feel as though someone had punched me in the gut. I wasn’t used to it and my guts coiled in horror at the smell of it. Even today, you offer me a shot of Fernet Branca and I’ll probably say, “thanks, but no thanks.” Not that I don’t see its merit, or that I don’t appreciate or value it as an important ingredient in a cocktail and as a mover and shaker in the nuanced bitters movement, it’s just not my thing. I used to think I just didn’t like Fernet—that was, until I curated my own bar program and chose to carry upwards of ten different varieties of Fernet and realized that all Fernet’s were not created equal. While I don’t love Fernet Branca, I do love the lore surrounding it. Dig into its history, and marketing was its greatest ally in making it what it is today. Based on some of my research, the legend goes that sometime around 1865, the company fabricated a doctor who prescribed Fernet for everything from the common hangover to a cure for cholera. They used this doctor to distribute the tonic in hospitals and prescribe it to patients for just about anything. In Rachel Black’s article entitled, Drinking Bitterness for Health and Pleasure, she explains:

‘To help legitimate the marketing claims of its curative properties, the invention of Fernet was attributed to the fictional medic, Dr. Fernet Svedese. Like many amari at the time, Fernet-Branca bore the seal of approval from medical practitioners and establishments, these were sometimes from specific hospitals or doctors. In the case of Fernet-Branca, Bernardino Branca made up the original endorsement. In 1865, Branca placed his first adverts in the Milanese paper La Perserveranza and then larger ads in the Corriere della Sera. The company began an aggressive Italian and then International marketing campaign. Fernet-Branca was one of the first companies selling amaro in Italy to advertise widely in newspapers. Adverts such as the one below made wide and varied health claims:

“Fernet-Branca aids digestion, eliminates thirst, stimulates the appetite, heals intermittent fever, headaches, dizziness, nerve problems, liver issues, spleen, nausea in general.” (https://remedianetwork.net/2015/08/09/amaro/)

Play the “What Herb are You? on Fernet Branca’s Website

So, what makes a Fernet a Fernet? There tend to be some basic components that you will find in almost every Fernet out there: a higher abv—Fernet’s tend to hover at the 40% mark; a more prominent bitter profile; and fundamental herbs that are found in almost every Fernet like, aloe ferox, myrrh, saffron, chamomile, rhubarb root and mint. They also don’t have the addition of sugars that Amaro have, which makes them bolder and punchier on the tongue.

20th Century Fernet Ad

The name Fernet is reported to have come from a monk with the last name who was renowned for his medicinal herb tonic and an image of him adorns the bottle of Tempus Fugit’s Fernet expression. If you’re combing through old Italian manuscripts to figure out this mystery, you will find that Fernet is in its own category usually and when it isn’t under its name, it will be listed as an elixir. According to Tempus Fugit’s website, they report that Fernet is an old French Burgundy surname and is pronounced “Fair-Nay.” Of course, as most things go, the bastardization of this medicinal herbal tonic through commercialization and marketing means that we now call it Fernet—pronounced like it’s spelled.

Whether it be Fernet, Amaro or Herbal liqueur, at the very core of it, most were made specifically for tonic purposes—tonic being a substance taken to give “feelings of vigor and well-being.” If you’ve ever had a hard night drinking or have a general feeling of malaise, whether Amari or Fernet, you will find either one will give you the vim and vigor you need to continue on your day and to make you feel just like yourself again.

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