Fernet Branca memories & a new favorite Barbera producer #NewYorkStories

This post is dedicated to the inimitable Levi Dalton, who nudged me to share these memories and recollections…

carussin winery

Above: I loved meeting and tasting with Luca (left) and Matteo Ferro of the Carussin winery at the Slow Wine/Vinitaly tasting last Monday in New York in the old Fernet Branca bottling building at 10 Desbrosses in Tribeca.

The bigger the city, the smaller the town… Who said that? I don’t remember. But the expression came to mind a week ago Monday when I arrived at 10 Desbrosses St. in Tribeca for the Slow Wine/Vinitaly jamboree.

The first New Yorker I bumped into was the inimitable Levi Dalton, one of the wine professionals and wine writers whom I admire most in this world. (Levi’s also one of the most knowledgeable Italian wine authorities working in the U.S. today; I high recommend his blog and podcast to you.)

He and I were both there to taste Italian wine but I couldn’t resist sharing my memories of that building with him.

The year was 2000 when I left my job as an editor and wine writer at La Cucina Italiana to launch my career as a freelance wine writer and my then nascent copywriting business.

My very first gig was writing “The Fernet Branca Newsletter.”

Until the 1980s, Fernet Branca was wildly popular in the U.S. And its popularity had spanned three generations of New Yorkers. By the 1930s, demand for Fernet Branca was so great that the Fratelli Branca opened a bottling facility at 10 Desbrosses St. in Tribeca (now the site of an events space that hosts, among other things, tastings like the one we were there to attend).

During Prohibition, Fernet Branca was sold in the U.S. as a medicine. We might think of Fernet Branca as a “recreational” digestif today. But to generations of Italians, Fernet Branca was a cure-all and a tonic. Ask east coast Italian-Americans who were born in the 1950s and they will tell you that their parents gave them Fernet Branca for breakfast when they were children (often served in espresso and/or with an egg yolk).

In the early 1980s, the FDA cracked down on Fernet Branca, noting that they were selling “medicine” at liquor stores. The Fratelli Branca were forced to close the facility.

barbera carussin

Above: The Ferro brothers Barbera was bright and fresh but it also had that unmistakable earthiness imparted by the unique tufo of Asti. Barbera d’Alba can be great but — in my experience — it rarely achieves the depth of Barbera d’Asti, where the wines are meatier and more savory. I loved their wines.

By the time I got there, the building had remained virtually closed for nearly two decades. The Carpano group (who had bought the Fernet Branca brand in the meantime) Fratelli Branca (which by that time had acquired a number of spirits brands, including the Carpano family of Vermouths) had decided to re-license the line of spirits as liquor and to relaunch the brand (inspired in part by the 1980s success of Jägermeister).

I had been contacted by the U.S. manager: he asked me to begin producing print and web media for the new project (back then, print media still trumped virtual media). And thus the Fernet Branca Newsletter was born (I still have some copies of it).

The first time he invited me to see the space, it was still covered in cobwebs. One floor housed large wood casks and bottling machines. One floor hosted a series of labyrinthic offices reminiscent of a film noir set.

But the top floor was a Frankestein laboratory, left virtually untouched for what must have been decades.

It was full of beakers and other distilling equipment and scores and scores of digestifs.

I later learned that during the heyday of Fernet Branca in the U.S., the Fratelli Branca were constantly testing and analyzing the overwhelming number of Fernet Branca counterfeits that regularly appeared in the market (if you visit food shops in places like Bensonhurst, for example, you’ll still find “Fernet” imitators on the shelves; the last time I saw one was at Trunzo on 18th Avenue).

desbrosses street

Above: The floor where the tasting was held was one the Fernet Branca anti-counterfeit command center. What a flood of memories when I walked in!

It was one of the most amazing sites I’ve ever seen. A graveyard of ancient digestifs. One of my greatest regrets is that I never took the time to document the space before Fratelli Branca closed it.

In the wake of the September 11, 2001 tragedy and the New York City restaurant scene depression that followed, Fratelli Branca abandoned the project and let all of the employees go. It was a tough time for everyone in New York, including me (I lived there from 1997 to 2007).

Of the course of my tenure as the editor of the Fernet Branca Newsletter, they brought me to Milan on two separate occasions to visit the corporate offices. It was a fascinating experience, especially in the light of how Fernet Branca was marketed and consumed in Italy and the U.S. over the last seventy years.

Today, few remember the old Fernet Branca building at 10 Desbrosses: when I first visited, a sign on the facade still read “Fernet Branca.” New York has changed a lot since then.

I’m glad to have lived and worked there when I did…

Thanks again, Levi, for the nudge!

5 Responses to Fernet Branca memories & a new favorite Barbera producer #NewYorkStories

  1. Another great post and love the history. We keep a bottle of Fernet Branca around for JoAnn’s mom. It’s her favorite digestivo. Last time we were in New York, we took her to Keen’s steakhouse. On a cold December night, she asked for it warmed up with a espresso steame, something that was new to us. The staff had never heard of that but were eager to please. It’s starting to become a winter tradition for us now!

  2. Levi Dalton says:

    So glad this story made it into typeface.

  3. Jeremy, did you ever taste the Carpano Vermut “Antica Formula”?
    The most expensive Vermouth in the world but definitely the best. Btw Carpano is the inventor of vermouth and the oldest producer

  4. Susannah says:

    Nice post, interesting memories. Any thoughts on Braulio or why Americans drink Fernet Branca so differently/more often than Italians in the past 10-15 years?

  5. Do Bianchi says:

    Andy, I need to do a post about Marisa’s method! I love that! thanks for being here… See you in SF next Friday?

    Levi, thanks again for the nudge.

    Francesco, I was working for Fratelli Branca when they launched Antica Formula. Great product… it’s become immensely popular among American “mixologists.” And thanks for the heads up on the Branca/Carpano merger.

    Susannah, thanks for being here. I feel a post coming on! :)

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