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Fernet-Branca Was Once a ‘Cure’ for Cholera

I was granted a conversation with the Vice President of Fernet-Branca, Niccolò Branca, who offered some rare insight into its composition and surprising history.

Harry Sword

Foto via Flickr user jesusdehesa

My first experience with Fernet-Branca took place at St. John a few years back. A small glass of viscous, deep brown liquid was placed on the table: murky, intensely bitter, herbaceous, sexy; positively medieval. The aroma was briny and medicinal—palpably witchy, somehow—and the glass was adorned with thick legs that spreading forebodingly up the side, like a heavy single malt.

The taste? Violently—beautifully—bitter. A synesthetic explosion of 'brown' that finds its way into the furthest reaches of the nasal cavity and spreads to the darkest recesses of the cranium, thrillingly riding the outer reaches of palatable. A note of blood or copper, perhaps? No, stronger: much stronger. We're talking bile bitter here—liver and kidneys, miscellaneous organ meats. And a herb bomb intensity caused by the mix of unknown exotic botanicals. A taste bizarre. I loved it immediately. This, I distinctly remember thinking, was a very serious drink: perhaps the most serious of all.

Founded in 1845, the Fernet Branca distillery in Milan has been distilling this powerful elixir to an exacting top secret recipe ever since. Has it ever changed? Of course not. We're talking true fanatical tradition here, presided over by stern keepers of the faith. Indeed, Fergus Henderson himself is a known Fernet enthusiast. He drinks it in the morning (before his Pastis; check the recent MUNCHIES report of his formidable daily drinking routine) and his enthusiasm has certainly helped increase its cult status in recent years. Still a relative rarity in the UK, it has always been on the drinks menu at both St John restaurants, amongst the fine aged Calvados and Port and ever since that initial glass I've sought it out whenever possible—more often than not at St John—so was thrilled to be granted a rare email exchange with the Vice President of Fernet Branca, Niccolò Branca.

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''It's a totally secret formula, passed down through the family line.'' he explained. ''It's remained completely unchanged over the years—right from the beginning, Fernet-Branca was seen to be a product with therapeutic benefits.''

Often taken as a digestif in Italy, Fernet-Branca has long been hailed both as a particularly effective cure for stomach trouble as well as a hangover buster of mythical status (check out Fergus Henderson's Doctor Henderson recipe, for instance) and a decent 'pain reliever' (as indeed it should be at 45 percent ABV). But while I can personally attest to the 'therapeutic' aspects of the drink, the medicinal aspect was thought—in eighteenth century Milan, at least—to be somewhat more heavyweight than a mere pick-me-up.

''During the 18th century, it was actually used as a cure for cholera'' Branca explained. ''Our company founder, Bernardino Branca, provided the Fatebenefratelli hospital in the city with considerable amounts to be used for medicinal purposes during the initial outbreak of cholera in Milan; when it was tested on patients it proved to be remarkably successful. The entire city spoke of it, the windows of bars and shops were papered with ads, and it came to be appreciated also as a digestif, a tonic against fever [and] nervous complaints, and to stimulate the appetite.''

Whether the reported germ-busting effects of Fernet-Branca against cholera would stand up to the slightly more rigorous tests of modern medicine remains to be seen, of course (although I doubt many afflictions could withstand swift, repeated, vigorous blasts of Fernet) but the drink did quickly became part of the fabric of drinking in Milan, a favourite of the landowners and peasants alike.

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Although the tonic quickly became a drink consumed for pleasure, the founder—Bernardino Branca—was still a renowned herbalist and apparently continued to conduct his own experiments.

''Bernardino Branca was what was once called an "apothecary"—an early pharmacist. He had a laboratory in Pallanza, on Lake Maggiore, and constantly researched and experimented. Other towns also used Fernet Branca for its medical properties.''

Genius marketer or rigorous medical sage? We'll leave you to decide that one. Regardless of the health-giving properties of this bizarre liquor though, it is the actual blend of herbs that makes the genuine article so inimitable. And while I didn't seriously think that Mr. Branca was about to hand over a peeling parchment from the vaults containing the exact measurements, I just had to ask well, y'know, what the hell goes into this stuff?

He was surprisingly obliging.

"The herbs used to make Fernet-Branca come from four continents: aloe from South Africa, rhubarb from China, Gentian from France, galanga from India or Sri Lanka, and chamomile from Europe and Argentina, to name just a few. The flavours and typical brown colouring are extracted from flowers, roots, plants and herbs in various ways—principally, infusion.''

Bernardino Branca never revealed the exact circumstances surrounding the genesis of his recipe and a pleasing aura of mystery surrounds the process today; the formula is kept locked in a safe and is accessible solely to the chairman at any one time (through twisting stone corridors and by flickering candlelight, one would hope). Brilliantly, it is also still Mr. Branca who defines the measurements of the botanicals himself to this day. The company also have certain 'blender families' who have worked with the company for generations, passing down the expertise on specific herbs. Incredibly, the company is also the world's biggest consumer of saffron.

"Once the flowers, roots, plants, and herbs are selected, the doses are personally defined by me. They are then processed, their essences extracted in different infusions in alcohol. The mixture is then aged for a year in oak casks—stored in darkness and total silence—so that the aromatic components can blend correctly. But along with the secret of the recipe, the secret of the dosages and the exact composition of the herbs that go into Fernet, there is also a third secret: the procedure for the spices. Every spice is processed individually. In some sectors, the workers also succeed one another generation to generation, maintaining the expertise and confidentiality. From time to time, I also travel to Argentina where I oversee weighing of production and control the olfactory properties of samples of the chamomile produced there''

Besides Italy, Argentina is the biggest market for the drink—the only country aside from Italy where Fernet-Branca is produced. Indeed, the simple "Fernet con Coca" is essentially the national drink, consumed in vast quantities everywhere.

However refreshing this concoction might be, a part of me can't help but feel it's somehow a cheat; a waste of the precious elixir, even.

Taste it neat, and you'll see.

This first appeared on MUNCHIES in June 2015.