When Jonathan Pogash sent out an invite letting people know that Count Niccolo Branca of the Distillerie Fratelli Branca would be attending a USBGNY mixer, I had to attend, because you know what? Everyone's life needs a little Merchant-Ivory touch to it.
Well, that's part of the truth. It actually had a lot to do with the fact that while I was aware of Fernet-Branca as a product, I felt like I didn't really know it beyond the cursory knowledge that a) it was an amaro, and b) it tastes bitter when I put some in my mouth. Oh, and c)in San Francisco people drink it like it's going out of style.
When I arrived at the World Bar, I grabbed a Brandy Branca, one of the drinks being made for the special occasion (brandy, Fernet-Branca, lime juice, 10-year tawny port, simple syrup) and it looked like of the people in attendance also were there for a chance to learn.
"Yea, I kind of realized, I don't really know Fernet...besides what I've Googled previously," I confessed to Nicholas Jarrett of APO in Philadelphia. He was armed with a notebook and ready to take notes.
Nicholas answered that info is pretty scarce, so having the count, as well as representatives of the company, coming in person was a rare and eagerly anticipated event.
Obviously other bar trade folks in attendance, like Tad Carducci and Eryn Reece, had more knowledge than I did, but the consensus seemed to be that there was a bit of mystery if not confusion about the product. And the swirling mists of time and anecdotes didn't help in cutting through those mists.
LeNell Smothers asked the count that Fernet-Branca is categorized as an amari, but there are other products that describe themselves as fernet, or incorporate it in their name somehow, so what makes Fernet, well, fernet?
This one question of what is Fernet, or what defines it seemed to stump everyone equally and resulted in about 15 minutes of discussion that basically boiled down to, it's a distinctive product, so it just sort of defines itself within a category.
The reasoning was that Fernet technically counts as its own category because of brand recognition. While other brands have lost bitterness over time, as trends have moved on toward easier drinking and sweetness, Fernet-Branca still maintains the same level of bitterness and flavor. Not as a putdown to other products, it was quickly pointed out by a company representative, but simply stated as a fact.
Even the count admitted that it was difficult to weed out what is history and what is legend when LeNell asked about one origin story that floated around. The story that iron was used in apurification process, resulting in the "fernet" portion of the name from "ferro."
Tad Carducci wanted to know if the Dr. Fernet character really was created to give some sort of Madison Ave.-esque medical credibility to the product back when it was marketed for its medicinal properties.
The count also admitted that this is one of the legends having to do with the product's creation, but in reality there are several out there with no conclusive proof as to what is entirely true.
Even though that particular discussion seemed to run around in circles, people seemed to be pleased to have the opportunity to talk, discuss, and possibly debunk or any previous theories they had about the product. For example, as people asked about the base spirit, it was interesting to learn there isn't really a specific grape that goes into the spirit because, as the count put it, "the character isn't from the spirit but from the herbs." Just further goes to prove my point that as cool as they seem, bartenders are total nerds. They just happen to be nerds about alcohol.