The year 1845 represented some memorable moments in history, including the start of the Irish potato famine, the year that Texas became a state, and the first time that the word baseball appeared in a major newspaper.
It’s also the year that Italian herbalist Bernardino Branca enthusiastically emerged from his Milan apothecary with a recipe for a tonic, made from 27 roots, spices, and herbs, that he formulated for the treatment of cholera.
Little did Branca know that this eureka moment would find relevance in a new era of cocktail conversations some 170 years later.
Fernet-Branca. It’s not just for cholera anymore.
My first experience with this bitter and spirituous elixir, which is based on Branca’s proprietary blend that has reportedly gone unchanged since its inception, was with Chris Cohen, a local liquor distributor and a proud member of Tucson’s bitters brotherhood. He told me that there’s been a renaissance of sorts among liqueurs in the bitter category.
“What were once considered digestifs, enjoyed as sippers after your meal, are now finding their way into cocktails,” said Cohen, Southern Arizona key account manager for Young’s Market Company. “I’ve even seen people sip on Fernet-Branca and soda as a palate cleanser between dinner courses.”
Its recent spike in popularity suggests that you’re likely to find it at your favorite Southern Arizona bar or lounge, and one located just steps away from the University of Arizona’s main gate leads the state in Fernet-Branca sales by orders of magnitude.
“Fernet-Branca is our signature drink, and anyone 21 years of age and older who wants to work here gets a shot as kind of an initiation,” said Autumn Dominguez, a barista at Espresso Art Café, 942 E. University Boulevard.
Dominguez believes that its surge in sales is partly based on society’s growing interest in probiotics and other natural therapeutics, claiming that the liqueur has a long history of solving a slew of digestive problems. That, and her boss is from Romania, and he apparently has a thing for European spirits.
The exact 27 roots, spices, and herbs that collectively define the Fernet-Branca experience are held close to the vest, with no one on the planet who’s privy to the precise formulation other than the chairman of the Fratelli Branca Distillery that produces it. However, we do know that saffron, cinnamon, rhubarb, linden, iris, galangale, and myrrh play key roles in the blend.
As I think about this, I find myself yearning to be at a place on my journey when I can confidently note hints of galangale in a cocktail. But I digress.
In addition to the charts-topping Espresso Art Café, several other establishments across town enjoy robust Fernet-Branca sales, including St. Charles Tavern on S. 4Th Avenue, where I recently attended a Fernet party for industry insiders. I ended up walking away with a coveted Fernet Coin, a forever-in-my-front-pocket mainstay that comes with certain privileges and responsibilities at Fernet-serving establishments around the globe.
Rest assured that this honor has reverently been added to my curriculum vitae.
Fernet-Branca also makes an appearance in a unique expression of the classic Jack and Coke at BIRD Bar and Chicken on N. Oracle Road, with tobacco-smoked Jack Daniel’s, Moxi syrup, Togorashi-spiced bitters, and Fernet.
Simply said, the therapeutic potential of Fernet-Branca can’t be overstated. So relax, pucker up, and have a sip of history.
Contact Matt Russell, whose day job is CEO of Russell Public Communications, at email@example.com. Russell is also the host of “On the Menu Live” that airs 5 to 6 p.m. Saturdays on KQTH 104.1 FM, as well as the host of the Friday Weekend Watch segment on the “Buckmaster Show” on KVOI 1030 AM.