fernet branca: the pipe cleaner

sink drain

I know what you're thinking, but it's just a sink drain.

A FEW DAYS AGO, I noticed a foul odor in my kitchen. My first thought was that it was emanating from the refrigerator, from one of my partner Leah’s lacto-fermentation projects, which can thrive happily and stink up the fridge for months. But when I washed my hands in the kitchen sink, a dead cabbage smell wafted up to my nose, and I realized that something was rotting in the drain.

I hoped the stank in the sink would be easy to extinguish, but Leah’s efforts proved futile. Throughout the day, she poured various substances down the drain: boiling water, dish soap, baking soda, vinegar, bleach. As a last resort, she tossed in a splash of Fernet Branca. If that didn’t improve the bouquet, she said, then she’d take apart the pipes tomorrow.

Since I wrote about Fernet Branca in an earlier column, I’ve been surprised to find how many people enjoy drinking this medicinal, menthol liqueur; One friend fondly reminisced how his great-aunt used to give him a spoonful for tummy aches when he was a child, his introduction to the healing power of liquor. Many people were shocked to hear that I, a lover of all booze, was not in love with this particular amaro.

My distaste for Fernet Branca comes from a bias: I am not a fan of cooling herbs. Perhaps it’s from having Vicks VapoRub shoved up my nostrils on a tissue torpedo when I had a cold as a child. Or maybe I used too much Ben Gay on torn ligaments when I was a cheerleader, when the coach insisted we do full splits at tournaments even when our bodies insisted we couldn’t. (It’s true. I cheered, complete with feathered hair, fringy pom poms and a short-short black and gold skirt. You can stop laughing now). Mint ice cream and mint juleps are on my most-hated list. Even toothpaste challenges me. Right after I brush my teeth, I can’t drink a glass of water without gagging. The only exception to my mint aversion is mojitos, which I can easily consume in large amounts. The muddled limes seem to castrate the mint and leave it powerless to offend me.

Which got me thinking: Maybe I’d be able to tolerate Fernet Branca in a cocktail with lime.

When I mentioned this idea to Leah, she suggested I start with a base alcohol that could compete with the menthol, like a peaty scotch. For this drink, I chose cognac. I added lime juice and sugar, and topped it with a splash of club soda, because, gosh darn it, bubbles are fun, and the Fernet needed something on its side.

The resulting cocktail was palatable and refreshing. The lime did the trick, and I felt relieved to tell my friends that I, too, had found a way to appreciate the highly regarded Fernet Branca. I don’t love it, but like any alcohol, it’s all in how you mix it.

And miraculously, when mixed with boiling water, dish soap, baking soda, vinegar, and bleach, Fernet Branca cured the drain of its malodorous ailment.

Pipe Cleaner

1 ½ ounces cognac

¼ ounce Fernet Branca

¼ ounce lime juice

1 teaspoon sugar

club soda

lime wheel

Fill a shaker with ice. Add cognac, Fernet Branca, lime juice and sugar. Shake. Strain into a double rocks glass filled with ice. Top with club soda. Garnish with a lime wheel.

-Amelia Sauter


fernet branca: the toronto

fernet branca

I can't decide if Fernet Branca is a liquor or a mouthwash.

FIRST, YOU NEED TO KNOW that Fernet Branca is one of the scariest liquids I’ve put in my mouth in a long, long time; second, that it is a liqueur highly regarded by the cocktail community.

I warned Leah,“Only buy one bottle,” but, ever-vigilant of quantity discounts, we’ve got three. Fernet Branca is an amaro, which doesn’t come from the Latin word for love, but rather is Italian for “bitter and tragically disgusting yet for some reason we are compelled to drink it.”

Describing Fernet Branca as medicinal and herbal with notes of eucalyptus and mint is a serious understatement; that would be like describing gasoline fumes as earthy and peppery. Think camphor meets green Nyquil. Or, have you ever used Alkalol? Alkalol is a “natural formula” brown menthol liquid that you snort into your sinuses, which both cleanses them of pollen and burns all the flesh off of your nasal passages. Alkalol and Fernet Branca: separated at birth?

If I haven’t scared you away yet, then on to the cocktails! With much trepidation, I poured our first drink: Fernet Branca and Coca-Cola, wildly popular in Argentina.

The responses from the elite panel of judges: Dad says it tastes like Vicks VapoRub meets birch beer. Leah says, “I wouldn’t dump it out,” but I notice she doesn’t drink any more of it, and later, she dumps it out. I like the bitter finish, but I simply can’t stomach the menthol edge.

Take two. I mix Fernet Branca with something bolder than Coke: Finger Lakes Distilling’s McKenzie rye whiskey. The resulting drink, the Toronto, is a classic reminiscent of an Old Fashioned, but with an invigorating smack in the nostrils and a bitter finish. The three of us agree we can almost appreciate this cocktail.

Supposedly, Fernet Branca is an acquired taste that develops only with regular drinking. Stay tuned: We’ll revisit this one in a second column and see if the Fernet Branca lands on the bar beside the Campari, or on the bathroom counter next to the neti pot.

The Toronto

2 oz Finger Lakes Distilling McKenzie rye whiskey
¼ ounce Fernet Branca
¼ ounce simple syrup
twist of orange peel

Pour all ingredients over ice. Stir for twenty seconds. Garnish with a twist of orange peel.

-Amelia Sauter