Review: Fernet-Branca and Branca Menta
It’s hard to believe, but in 13 years of running Drinkhacker, we’ve never reviewed one of our most popular tipples: Fernet-Branca, the iconic ultra-bitter liqueur. Today we finally remedy that with a formal look at the most essential of Fernet brands, and its mint-heavy sibling, Branca Menta.
First off, what’s a fernet, and how is it different from an amaro? Well, a fernet is a type of amaro, and both styles originated in Italy (where Fernet-Branca is still made). Fernet recipes are typically old, secret, and complicated, just like more typical amari, but they lack one thing: sugar, or at least much of it. While amari often have a range of sweetness stretching from light to heavy, fernets may forgo sugar entirely, leaving them extremely bitter. (This bitterness is the primary reason why fernet has such a reputation as a digestif.) That said, as more brands have muscled into the cultish fernet market, sugar has begun to creep into more modern recipes, blurring the lines between amaro and fernet.
Fernet-Branca is decidedly one of the stalwarts in the fernet world. There’s no sweetness here, and if there’s any sugar in the recipe, you won’t taste it. Fernet-Branca boasts a recipe of 27 herbs, roots, and spices, only some of which are revealed, including cinchona, rhubarb, chamomile, cinnamon, linden, iris, saffron, galangal, and some weirder herbs like zedoary and myrrh. The result is a liqueur that simply cannot be mistaken for any other. The nose is rich with notes of coffee bean, (very) dark chocolate, dried plums, and an almost medicinal level of spice — a variety of tree barks and dried herbs that offer an outrageously bitter aroma. The palate pulls no punches. Bitterness attacks the throat straight away, and those bark and dried fruit notes instantly grip the palate. Notes of old wine, ginger, raisins, and mulling spices hit first, then the cloves and cinnamon pour on the spicy pungency. That fruity bitterness clings to the throat for ages, and Fernet-Branca’s medicinal (and healing) aftertaste is downright legendary. 78 proof. A / $25
Branca Menta – While Fernet-Branca dates to 1845, Branca-Menta was released in the 1960s, the result of younger drinkers who were putting mint syrup in their Fernet. Take standard Fernet-Branca and add peppermint and menthol, and you’ve got Menta. However, the current recipe is much lower in alcohol. The mint is immediately evident on the nose, and it brings out a cocoa character in the aroma that ultimately smells a lot like mint chocolate. Sweetness is evident as you take a sip — this is no ultra-bitter fernet but rather a more modern styling — and the palate hits like a mint-flavored glass of espresso, heavily dosed with sugar. That heavy sweetness makes Menta feel less refreshing than it should be, though the peppermint element is at least quite fun. 60 proof. B+ / $24