Fernet the way it was meant to be drunk (the great misunderstanding aka the Atlantic Ocean)

fernet branca history

The photo above comes from the Facebook of my friend Giovanni Contrada (left), born in 1957 and raised in Boston by his mother (right) a seamstress from Naples whose first language was Neapolitan.

That’s a bottle of “Fernet” on the counter and the setting is breakfast before getting off to school.

“My mother used to give me an espresso with a raw egg yolk [folded in] and a shot of Fernet,” Giovanni remembers.

By the time Giovanni was school-going age, there were literally scores of Fernet Branca imitators and counterfeiters. As late as the mid-2000s, if you visited the food shops that dotted 18th Ave. in Bensonhurst (Brooklyn), you’d still find a few of the labels on the shelves. I remember seeing some at Trunzo when I lived in Brooklyn and shopped there frequently.

In Italy to this day, Fernet Branca and the many popular amaro and “Fernet” brands are considered and consumed as tonics. And in an era before a Duane-Reade on every corner and a pill for every malady, amaro and Fernet in particular were employed and applied as cure-alls — and not just for indigestion.

Giovanni’s photo and remembrance are examples of how Italian migrants brought this tradition with them. And many of Italian-American friends in their mid-50s have similar recollections of Fernet as a tonic given to them by their parents.

Americans’ attitudes about Fernet and amaro began to change in the 1970s when Fratelli Branca began to reposition the Fernet Branca brand as a recreational drink. That all went away in the 1980s when the FDA noticed that Branca was still importing the brand using a medicinal license, a bureaucratic nugget that dated back to the Prohibition era when the brand was openly sold as a tonic in Italian neighborhoods in the U.S. Jägermeister ultimately took its place.

Giovanni’s mother passed away last year. I can’t imagine that she would recognize the Fernet of her youth in the festishization of amaro that has emerged here in the U.S.

I’ve really been enjoying Levi Dalton’s excellent series of posts “On the Amaro Hunt in Italy.” And it’s been exciting to watch brands like Nonino become so popular among the legions of mixologists who use amaro as an ingredient in their ars miscendi spiritus destillatos.

But like Virginia Slims, we’ve come a long way, baby

Off topic, Giovanni is the stylist behind the Imp of the Perverse, a fashion line you’ll find on the racks of upscale retailers like Fred Segal in West Hollywood. He regularly posts images of his new work and the many celebrities who sport his jackets via his Twitter.

5 thoughts on “Fernet the way it was meant to be drunk (the great misunderstanding aka the Atlantic Ocean)

  1. Although I drink Fernet Branca as a digestif, I also enjoy Underberg for the same reason, and recommend it highly

  2. I drink my Fernet Branca shaken over ice and strained, always as a digestif. When I need an amaro in the afternoon, it’s always Cynar, “contro il logorio della vita moderna”. :)

  3. Nice post! I’m Argentinean from an Italian family, and an italia lover. Here in Argentina Fernet is a traditional drink (obviously inherited by our grandparents, our population is 50% Italian and 50% Spanish), but it was first served as a vermouth drink among the other famous amaros and vermouths like Gancia, Cynar, Campari, Martini, ecc. mixed with “soda water”. In fact the biggest factory of Fernet Branca is here in Argentina and the main market for that drink is obviously Argentina. If you go out with a friend in Buenos Aires or Córdoba it’s likely probable that they will drink Fernet with Coke just like in the US anyone drinks a beer. In the province of Cordoba that drink, the Fernet with Coke, it’s almost a religion.
    In Italy though it’s less likely to have it served like that in a bar, it is usually drunk as a “ammazzacaffè”, just as a digestive tonic after the coffee, after a meal.

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