American Fernet: Stateside Bitter Liqueurs to Rival Fernet-BrancaBy Anna Archibald
For many years the word “fernet” brought to mind a brand rather than a full category of digestivo amaro. Made in Italy, Fernet-Branca, with its biting, menthol and licorice-flecked flavor, has long been the industry standard. But in the past decade, fernet has blossomed into a full-fledged category of amaro that refuses to be ignored—no matter how you feel about its rather divisive flavor profile.
The past decade’s renewed fascination with fernet—thanks in large part to San Francisco bartenders who embraced Fernet-Branca during the 2000s—has successfully highlighted other long-existing brands in the category. But it’s also inspired a spate of American distillers to put their own twists on the bitter liqueur. From lighter bodied fernets to those made with regional botanicals, each American fernet exhibits an individuality that makes it as good (and often better) as the classic Fernet-Branca.
A bold, refreshingly mentholated take on the amaro, Letherbee Fernet has gained a following since its 2014 release. The Chicagoland distillery infuses the bitter liqueur with many of the botanicals you’d expect to find in fernet.
It also adds unique flavor highlights like rhubarb root and eucalyptus for a much needed lift on the palate. Because it’s such a complex, refreshing flavor bomb, you’ll probably want to enjoy this bitter liqueur on its own. Letherbee Fernet makes the perfect palate cleanser after a particularly rich meal.
Bartenders in San Francisco love fernet so much that the ubiquitous industry tradition of the “bartender’s handshake” almost always involves Fernet-Branca. So there was little surprise when local fernet enthusiasts, Max Rudsten and Ben Flajnik, released Fernet Francisco Manzanilla in 2015.
Lighter and drier than Fernet-Branca, Fernet Francisco incorporates 50 herbs and botanicals, including rhubarb and chamomile (manzanilla in Spanish). This American fernet is easier on the palate than many others in its category, but works just as hard in classic cocktails like the Hanky Panky.
Made by Minnesota’s Tattersall Distilling, this American fernet is deliciously flavored with 30 different botanicals, herbs and spices. It’s lighter in flavor and body than its unapologetic Italian counterpart while retaining its spicy and herbal character. The bitter liqueur finishes on a beautifully minty note.
Mix with tonic and garnish with a sprig of mint to allow its lovely flavor and aroma to shine through.
Unlike any other fernet on the market, this fernet begins with a distillate made from Kombucha, a fermented tea. True to its name, this Portland, Oregon-made fernet blends classic ingredients with the flora from the area. Piquant flavors of Douglas Fir, birch bark and Willamette hops together with the other botanicals exhibit a fruity, floral and herbaceous flavor.
At a hearty 80 proof, this unconventional American fernet is not for the faint of heart or palate. For an unusual and high-impact cocktail, try it out in a Black Manhattan.
Over the past decade, Colorado’s Leopold Bros. has managed one fantastic release after another. Fernet Leopold is no exception. The oldest of the American fernets mentioned here, this one is made with a focused menthol quality. Familiar floral ingredients like rose petals, elderflower and honeysuckle help to soften its bitter edge.
The bitter liqueur spends a few months in chardonnay barrels, resulting in a fantastically rich and complex drink. It works like magic to refresh your palate on its own and even shines in an homage to the Argentinian classic, fernet and Coke.