Amaro, Italian for "bitter,” refers to an herbal liqueur category, usually consumed as an after-dinner digestif. With an alcohol content between 16% and 43%, they are bitter-sweet and range in syrupy viscosity. Similar products are available throughout Europe, but tradition and focus here in Boston, Italy sets the standard, and that brings us to
When you see a group of bartenders, with the bar customers six deep, stop everything their doing at 11:00pm on a Friday night, and do a shot, I’ll bet 5 to 1 it’s Fernet- although it’s really meant to be a stomach ailment panacea. It has developed far beyond an industry cult following, can be seen everywhere, locally behind every cocktail bar. On the higher end of the alcohol spectrum, it clocks in at 43%, is bracingly bitter, mint and licorice flavors dominating. Italians really only take it as a sip or two after dinner; I remember being in Rome a few years ago and doing a shot at a cafe in the afternoon to stares that said "that American is crazy."
The history of Fernet Branca revolution in Boston can be pretty much traced to two men. Before the tremendous success of Eastern Standard, ICOB, The Hawthorne and soon to be Row 34, Garrett Harker worked in San Francisco, where he and fellow restaurant workers maybe took sips of Fernet out of espresso cups before service. Traditions tend to follow us, some more than others, and while at No. 9 Park he and Tom Mastricola, then bartender, would come visit me on a nightly basis (we were all a lot younger then). "Josh, could you get us a bottle of Fernet? We'll drink it." I had no idea what they were talking about, but of course ordered a single bottle the next day. A single bottle. In 1998, we were pouring a case a week (12 bottles), and while that didn't touch the present volume of ES, Citizen (Joy has it on tap) or even JM Curley down the street, the fire had been started.
What makes this business rewarding is what comes around goes around, and Kitty Amann, our local Fernet rep to the stars, brought Count Eduardo Branca down for an event at Silvertone this week. What an honor to have the sixth generation of the famous family in the room, I just hoped I wouldn't get in the way. Tremendously gracious and unassuming, he also showcased their other brands, the spectacular Carpano Antica and Punt e Mes vermouths. Time to make some cocktails.
John Nugent (Silvertone, Citizen, Brick & Mortar, Franklin) poured his crowd pleasing Home Wrecker cocktail: 1.5 oz Rye, .5 oz Punt e Mes, .5 oz St. Germain, .5 oz lemon. The drink is delicious, spicy from the rye and vermouth, lechee sweetness from St. Germain, and finishes with the bright lemon and orange flavors. Vermouth works surprisingly well with citrus, so with that in mind comes my version of a classic. My daughters call me Papa, so obviously I poured Papa's Americano, 1 oz Carpano Antica, 1 oz Aperol, .5 oz lime, soda. Perfect for a sunny patio, or at least I think so.
Legendary musician, dj, bartender Brother Cleve pulled an on-the-fly recipe from 1909 out of his vast repertoire, the Fernet Cocktail. 2 oz Carpano Antica, 1 oz Fernet, bar spoon Orange Curacao, orange oil. A full bodied precursor to the Americano, maybe its grandfather.
As we toasted with Fernet Branca to Fernet and the Branca family, things had indeed come full circle. Garrett Harker raised his glass in the center of the room with Eduardo, just as he had showed me the way 16 years earlier.
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