The Italian amaro Fernet-Branca—a bracingly bitter elixir made from a mélange of 27 herbs, roots, and spices, and the most recognizable example of fernet—is not for the faint of heart. But as many bartenders will attest, this potently herbaceous liqueur shines as a cocktail additive, especially when paired with whisky. “Fernet is a polarizing flavor,” says Michael Neff, co-founder, co-owner, and lead mixologist at Houston’s Cottonmouth Club. “Especially when you’re doing stirred and boozy cocktails, it kind of drives in contrast.”
Fortunately, there’s no shortage of whiskies that can stand toe-to-toe with fernet. “Whisky generally has enough of its own flavor and identity to be able to withstand introducing that big, bold flavor, and still keep its legs underneath it,” Neff says.
But building a balanced drink also depends on the whisky’s strength and style. High-proof rye tends to work well, although blended or even single malt scotch isn’t forbidden. “The boldness of whisky is really what you want to celebrate,” Neff says. “I love using fernet with rye, and just American whiskeys in general,” which offer robust flavors from aging in new charred oak that contrast with fernet’s complex herbal notes. “But it’s that exact kind of bold flavor you get from the wood that I think makes it pair well with fernet.”
Four Bold Whisky and Fernet Cocktails
Fanciulli: 2 oz. bourbon + ¼ oz. Fernet-Branca + ¾ oz. sweet vermouth + lemon twist and maraschino cherry for garnish
Stir whiskey, sweet vermouth, and fernet with ice. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Express lemon twist, discard, and garnish with maraschino cherry.
Adapted by Michael Neff, The Cottonmouth Club, Houston
Dare I Say: 1 oz. rye whiskey + ½ oz. Fernet-Branca + ½ oz. sweet vermouth + ½ oz. Aperol + 2 dashes rhubarb bitters
Stir all ingredients with ice. Strain into a chilled coupe.
Created by Karah Carmack, Republic National Distributing Co.
King Cole: 2 oz. bourbon or Canadian whisky + 1 tsp. Fernet-Branca + 1 tsp. simple syrup + pineapple and orange slices for garnish
Stir whisky, fernet, and simple syrup with ice. Strain into an Old Fashioned glass over a large ice cube. Garnish with pineapple and orange slices.
Adapted from Harry Craddock’s 1930 “The Savoy Cocktail Book”
Old Timber: 1½ oz. rye whiskey + ¼ oz. Jelínek Fernet or Fernet Francisco + ¼ oz. triple sec, such as Combier or Cointreau + cinnamon stick and orange twist for garnish
Stir rye, fernet, and triple sec with ice. Strain into a rocks glass with one large ice cube. Garnish with cinnamon stick and expressed orange twist.
Created by Gabe Cothes, Salt House, San Francisco