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What is Fernet?

By far the most famous type of fernet is Fernet-Branca, but there are other fernets on the market. So what is fernet, generally speaking? 

(Thanks to commenter Scott who wrote in on the "Shhh It's a Secret" seminar at Tales of the Cocktail write-up for asking the question that I never thought to ask.) 

I asked John Troia, co-founder of Tempus Fugit Spirits. They have a fernet coming out, Angelico Fernet. Here's what he says.

I’m sure there may be varying degrees of opinion, but we feel that the following is reasonably consistent with our research and that of others:

Although categorized under Italian Amari (Bitters), Fernet is its own bitter category and is most often listed underElixir/Elisir in Italian liquor manuals, when not simply called ‘Fernet’.The extremely bitter (amarissimo is an apt description) concoction has its origins most often attributed to Bernadino Branca, who commercialized it in 1845, but conflicting data conjectures its creator(s)as : a mythical doctor/collaborator of Branca from Sweden named Fernet (possibly as an off-shoot of the older and better tasting ‘Swedish Bitters’); Maria Scalia, the wife of Bernadino Branca who was a master herbalist and self-taught doctor; a monk named Frate Angelico Fernet  who may have been responsible as the origin of many herbaltonics and elixirs (Fernet being a historical French Burgundy  surname - pronounced Fair-Nay- and which underwent many spelling transformations); and a modern Italian liquorist text-book reference to it having originated somewhere in Hungary. 

Fernet was most likely created to counteract the effects of Cholera and Malaria, but went on to be used for everything from a laxative to hangover cure. Today, as in the past, there are many Fernet producers (with the largest making so much of the world’s production that some actually believe Fernet is a brand-name), but mostly made in tiny quantities for local rural Italian consumption. The various known recipes most typically share ingredients such as Aloe, Saffron, Quinquina, Gentian, Anise, Angelica, Mint and the odd Larch/White Agaric, a type of tree-bark loving mushroom (once also known as Spunk) rarely used or even found commercially outside of Italy. This latter ingredient (along with Saffron) seems to define and create the backbone of the best Fernets; Agarico mondo has an odd, bitter taste that becomes lightly mentholated on the mid-palate and was used to treat night-sweats.

According to Abruzzo’s local doctor, pharmacist, wine-maker, distiller and bitter-maker Marchese Dottore Egidio Niccolo Antonio d'Alesasndro di Trasmondi, the best Fernets have little or no sugar in them as it impairs digestion.

Thanks John - any questions? 


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I asked Franco Luxardo (yes, that Luxardo) what defines a fernet. He said they're extra bitter and contain no suger. He also insists it's a class in and of itself. Not a subclass of amari.

(If you ever get a chance to hang out with Franco, but all means do. He's a really cool guy.)

Colin Gore


What brands of Fernet have an agarico mondo backbone? As a Fernet Branca sippin' mycophile, I simply must know.


Camper English

Hmm, well the thing about amaros/fernets is that their recipes are usually kept secret. Maybe Tempus Fugit will tell us if there is fungus in their version....


Camper you are motherf***ing awesome.

Colin Gore

It looks like the 'shroom also goes by "quinine conk". I wonder if it actually contains quinine, or it simply got the name because of its bitterness. I believe the current Latin taxonomy is Laricifomes officinalis. Mycologists change fungi names more often than they change clothes, however, so it may have been updated. Agarico mondo must just be an Italian common name. The blasted thing ain't even an Agaric (those have stems and caps, like the stereotypical mushrooms that people first think of). It's what is known as a polypore since it grows like a shelf or a blob on the side of a tree.

Unfortunately, it is nearly extinct. Must have all those Fernet producers to blame!

Colin Gore

Ah, and beloved Wikipedia has some info on it too.

Camper English

Awesome - thanks Colin! They said in the seminar that the fungus absorbs the bitter flavors from the larch tree, so it's a bitter flavored fungi.


there is some of the agaric in the Rabarbaro Zucca

Mikkel Hviid

A lot of interesting info on the fernet style here :)

One of the defining traits of the Fernet family is that the spirit must be made from grapes!

Camper English

Hi Mikkel - The Fernet Branca made in Argentina has a base spirit of sugar cane distillate. This fernet is sold in South and Latin America.

Do you have a reference for where you heard that grapes are required? I have a copy of the EU laws and didn't see it there.

Drusilla Cagnoni

My grandmother, who immigrated from Italy around the turn-of-the-century, sent my father to school every morning after consuming a special "elixir" for breakfast. She called it "fernetto". It consisted of a shot of expresso and a shot of Fernet Branca blended with a raw egg. What a way to kick-start your day as a child.

Camper English

Wow, that's quite a kick in the pants! Surprised that they haven't made Pop-Tarts in that flavor yet :)


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