The Breakfast of Champions
Fernet Branca once saved my life and rescued me from certain humiliation. Yes, it’s true. Many years ago I was about to stand in as best man at a close friend’s wedding. With less than twenty minutes before the ceremony I was totally incapacitated by the worst hangover of my adult life. I had sinned grievously the night before by breaking many, if not all, of the drinking commandments at the pre-nuptial festivities. I won't go into lurid details, but the night ended with your humble author and several other die-hards (read complete idiots) hot-tubbing and polishing off a bottle of 160-proof German Schnapps right out of the bottle. Yes, I had sinned and secretly wished that someone, anyone, would put me out of my misery.
Alas, no one availed. Instead, I dragged my pathetic tuxedoed ass into the bar of the resort where the wedding was to take place and collapsed on the nearest bar stool. The bartender looked to be at least 200 years old and had the skin of a finely scorched lizard. Having no doubt seen it countless times before he took one look at me and said, "a bit under the weather today?" In short order I confessed my sins. Jake, as the bartender introduced himself, listened patiently and said, "I got just the cure." It came in the form of a shot of biliously-dark liquid, a short coke with no ice, and two aspirins. I threw the shot back grimacing at what had to be the most bitter thing I had ever tasted. Sensing I was about to hurl all over his immaculately set up bar, Jake reassured me. "Fernet Branca from Italy," he growled, "stuff works miracles." After said momentary urge to hurl dissipated, my stomach settled. Completely settled. Magically settled. I then washed the two aspirins down with the coke and sat back feeling almost human again. "Here, have another one," Jake said pouring a refill, "you look like you could use it." I sipped the second one and less than five minutes later I felt good--not just merely alive and human--but damn good. I handed Jake a twenty note and told him to keep the change. I then went out and not only did my job as best man, but delivered a great toast honoring the bride and groom during the reception. Yes, Fernet Branca saved my life that day and I’ve been drinking it ever since.
What is this miraculous elixir? Fernet Branca belongs to the family of bitters, or digestivos; bitter liqueurs that are enjoyed either as an aperitif before the meal or at the end of a large meal to aid in digestion. Although relatively unknown in this country, bitters such as Fernet Branca have long been a staple of the European dining tradition; a tradition largely alien in the U.S. where the mealtime usually consists of hoovering fast food in the car or consuming micro-waved delicacies while watching reruns of the Simpsons on TV.
Bitters trace their beginnings back to a time before the middle ages when monks blended secret mixtures of barks, roots, herbs and various plants for medicinal purposes. These strange concoctions were used to treat maladies ranging from hair loss to impotence. Every village developed its own special bitters whose recipe was a closely guarded secret. Such is the case with Fernet Branca. It dates back to 1845 when it was first created by a young Milanese woman, Maria Scala. She became Maria Branca by marriage and the legendary name was born. Like its predecessors, Fernet Branca was advertised as a cure for various ailments as well as an appetite stimulant. Although the recipe has never been entirely revealed, the ingredients are rumored to include extracts of gentian, aloe, rhubarb, peppermint oil, chamomile, saffron, angelica, and a host of other botanicals. But the most important ingredient is quinine, the mainstay of all bitter liqueurs. Not only is quinine a well-known cure for cholera, it can also can settle the worst of stomach aches. No wonder Fernet Branca is the ultimate cure for a hangover and my savior on that cruel November morning.
Fernet Branca is produced by macerating (soaking) the secret mix of botanicals in a neutral spirits base, the equivalent of vodka. After distillation the young liqueur is stored for a year in large oak vats to allow the flavors to marry, and then filtered and bottled. The finished product weighs in at 80 proof or 40% alcohol, thus the liqueur status. A mint flavored version called Branca Menta was created in 1962. It's slightly sweet and minty, but still packs the bitter quinine punch necessary to settle an upset stomach or take the edge off a hangover.
I like my Fernet Branca served neat with a soda back or water. But it can also be enjoyed over ice or mixed with ginger ale or soda. And believe it or not, Fernet Branca and cola is far and away the most popular cocktail in Argentina. Branca Menta is usually enjoyed over ice. Whatever your preference, try Fernet Branca and know that relief for what ails you is just a shot away.
Some final words of wisdom: Fernet Branca does not make one immune to over-indulgence or wretched excess when it comes to drinking. Use good judgment. Make a habit of eating when you drink and never get behind the count by drinking on an empty stomach. Know your limits and stick with them. Otherwise all the Fernet Branca on the planet won't save your ass.