Enter Fernet Branca, the amaro extraordinaire. The original Fernet was the creation of Bernardino Branca and his three sons. It was first offered for commercial sale in 1845 and advertised as a healthy tonic for a variety of malaises. In its early days Fernet was described as a “renown liqueur” that was “febrifuge, vermifuge, tonic, invigorating, warming and anti-choleric.” To the latter, the Branca family showed exceptional business acumen by having several local physicians officially validate their bitter elixir as a preventative and curative to cholera whose frequent outbreaks in the local region were a cause of great concern.
Fast forward to last week: I was in Italy visiting wineries and vineyards in Alto Adige, arguably the most unique of country’s 20 wine regions. German is the main language spoken there and the climate is a curious mix of alpine influence with the Dolomites hovering on all sides with some of the hottest summer temperatures thanks to warm air currents from the south. I’ll write about Alto Adige and the superb wines I tasted there in a future post.
One of the highlights of the trip was an extra day spent in Milan, specifically a tour of the Fernet Branca distillery. Fellow MS Geoff Kruth and I drove the three-plus hours from Bolzano to Milan early that morning to make our appointment. The distillery takes up an entire city block in an older industrial part of the city. Original photos and illustrations show it surrounded by farms and pastureland when first built. It’s now surrounded by urban sprawl and graffiti. Once there Geoff and I were greeted by Marco, a fine young lad well versed in all things Fernet. He led us into the superbly appointed Fernet museum which was first opened in 1980. Its halls are filled with old presses, stills, production tools, photos, and memorabilia as well as the original artwork produced by the company over the last 150 years
But while the Branca team is more than happy to let the world know what ingredients are in its wonderful elixir its actual production methods are indeed a trade secret. To point, Geoff, Marco and I donned gauzy paper clean suits and strolled through the production area for Café Borghetti, the company’s coffee liqueur. We also saw the enormous vat used for aging the Stravecchio Branca, the company’s brandy. But we were not allowed to see any the area used for distillation and production for both Fernet and Branca Menta. We were, however, taken into the sacred aging hall filled with dozens and dozens of huge wooden vats filled with Fernet quietly sleeping away for the required year to age and marry all the exotic components.
From the very earliest days the Branca family’s maxim has always been Novare serbando—renew but conserve. I couldn’t have said it better. Salute!