by Luke ONeil
| October 03, 2011
Photo: JOEL VEAK
spend much of our time talking about alcohol in consideration of its
form (its tastes, colors, and textures), but less frequently do we
turn to its functions. The primary one is obvious: it makes you feel
really, really good - or really, really bad. (One often follows the
other, you may have found.) Throughout much of history, drinking
served another function: alcohol was believed to have medicinal
properties. During Prohibition, one of the only legal ways to
purchase whiskey or brandy was by getting a prescription from your
doctor (!), and people throughout the world have long sworn by
certain boozy home remedies. Some still laud the digestive-aid
qualities of certain bitter spirits like Italian amari, including
fernets, which are typically made with dozens of botanicals, like
rhubarb, myrrh, gentian root, chamomile, red cinchona bark, and
galangal, to name a few. The most popular variety is Fernet-Branca,
which has been produced in Italy since 1845 (though as you'll see,
"popular" is a relative term).
popularization of Fernet has a hundred stories," says Tyler Wang of
(348 Congress Street, Boston, 617.695.1806) and No.
(9 Park Street, Boston, 617.742.9991). "I read once that bartenders
started drinking it because they could fill up their espresso cups
and get away with shooting it on the job. I've also heard that its
historic unpopularity made it the most cost-effective way for bars to
‘fortify' their tenders." Owners certainly are more willing to
look the other way when staff are drinking something they can't
move off the shelves. And considering that its taste can gently be
described as a bark- and mud-infused shot of nostril-burning
mouthwash, it's not hard to see why it still hasn't exactly
crossed over to the general drinking public.
maybe there is something to the medicine thing, Wang says. "I think
its medicinal qualities make it the perfect choice for an
ever-hungover industry. Rumor is that Fernet's overbearing
herbaceousness, poison-like, actually kick-starts the body's immune
system. . . . No one would drink this stuff for fun, right?"
not, unless it offered another valuable function - namely,
bestowing insider status on those in the know. It's that purpose
that Fernet, aka "the bartender's handshake," has primarily
served in Boston over the past few years. In many fields, it's
considered a badge of honor to be able to withstand the harshest
stuff available, whether it's brutal noise bands among music nerds
or difficult avant-garde films among cinephiles. Why should the bar
world be any different?
Fernet being the ultimate example, have a challenging flavor
profile," says Bob McCoy of Island
Creek Oyster Bar
(500 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston, 617.532.5300). "It's something
the masses make a face at, which in turn makes it all the more
enticing for people on the inside. So it becomes a rite of passage of
sorts and symbolizes the camaraderie among service professionals."
there are some user-friendly options to help the medicine go down.
The stalwart Toronto cocktail, made with rye, Fernet, sugar, and
Angostura bitters, is one example, says Wang. The bittersweet,
vegetal aperitif Cynar, with its artichoke notes, is another
compromise. So is the slightly bitter Italian vermouth Punt e Mes.
Either one can be subbed into a Manhattan or a Negroni for an easy
thinks Santa Maria al Monte could be next in line for the
bitters-chasing crowd. "It's got all the bitter and herbaceous
qualities of Fernet with a touch more sweetness, a real round flavor,
and balance." The Czech herbal bitters Becherovka has been on the
rise as well, he says, and could be a gateway bitter. "It's got
great spice flavors of cinnamon, nutmeg, and clove, and it's great
in cocktails, in hot drinks, or on its own."
with its root-beery citrus flavors, might be considered even more
approachable. And Meletti is a viscous, floral, and saffron-forward
amaro I've seen growing in popularity among bartenders. The most
popular and venerable Italian digestif, Amaro Montenegro, likewise
captivates with a bittersweet balance hinting at orange and caramel.
of the above are accessible ways to train your palate for Fernet. But
after trying a few with bartender Joel Barbieri at the West
(1680 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, 617.441.5566), attempting to
figure out which might be the heir to the bitter throne, I realized
something: if you do manage to develop a taste for the hard stuff,
you may never want to go back. One seemed too syrupy, the next too
insubstantial. Others, quite frankly, left a bitter taste in our
mouths, and we kept wanting to go back to our preferred poison.
Eventually the answer came. "You know the next Fernet is?"
Barbieri said. "Fernet."
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