Monday, November 10, 2008

The Bitter Truth

Without It, You’re Not Drinking A Cocktail

In the U.S., we use the term “cocktail” the way we use “champagne" - a blanket term and not always accurate. Most of the cocktail menus we see in our favorite lounges and bars are not necessarily made up of true “cocktails.” They may be smashes or punches or crustas or daisies or other classifications of mixed drinks. What the hell am I talking about, you ask? Well, let’s begin with the definition of a cocktail:

Cocktail = Spirit + Water + Sugar + Bitters
  • Spirit: alcohol of some kind (vodka, gin, whiskey, rum, and so on)
  • Water: can be actual water or soda water, or sometimes comes in the form of ice
  • Sugar: can be granulated sugar, simple syrup, or even a sweet liqueur
  • Bitters: can be Angostura (found at any supermarket), can also be flavored bitters such as Fee’s new rhubarb, grapefruit, peach, etc. Can be traditional Peychaud’s bitters, as used in the classic “Sazerac” cocktail, Can also be a bitter apertif / digestif such as Averna, Campari, Fernet Branca, etc.
There is so much room for creativity when it comes to designing a new cocktail, just as there is creating a special meal, or painting, or designing the latest ditty to drape over a model on the catwalk. This creative factor is exactly what attracts so many of us “artsy types” behind the bar.

I can wax poetic about my love of Campari, and go on about the myriad of novelties with using flavored bitters. However, in this post, I want to share a bit about the “elite” bartender’s darling, that little Italian bitter sweetheart called Fernet Branca.

Fernet Branca, is similar to vermouth in the sense that it is wine-based. Like mainstay bitters such as Angostura, it is infused with herbs and spices (more than 40, actually). Some of those include: peppermint, myrrh, chamomile, cardamom and saffron. It is aged in oak barrels for a year. And more than 2 million cases of this stuff is sold annually, worldwide.

So, why hasn’t every American embraced Fernet Branca, and other bitter apertifs / digestifs? My theory is that the U.S. palate is more accustomed to sweet than bitter. We grew up with Kool Aid and Coca-Cola as childhood beverages. Most of us girls, anyway, first encountered alcohol in the form of sickly sweet wine coolers and fruity, sugary cocktails designed more for their color and foofy names, than for what was in the glass. Even our early champagne was likely some form of Asti Spumante – a sweet, carbon dioxide injected sparkling wine.

Whereas in Europe, the concept of aperitif (appetite opener) and digestif (digestion facilitator), in the form of a tidy beverage, is simply part of the meal. I grew up spending annual chunks of time in France where it was natural for a teenager to be exposed to Campari and soda, or Dubonnet with a lemon twist, or a glass of sweet red vermouth on ice, for example.

Fernet Branca is particularly pungent, and even for a bitter lover like myself, I can see how it resembles cough syrup at first sip. After all, herbal elixirs were early medicine. And, Fernet Branca was created in 1845 by Bernadino Branca, a self-taught alchemist in Milano, Italy. His three sons, Giuseppe, Luigi and Stefano carried on the family business after his death.

Fernet Branca is still a family-run business to this day. It sells in the U.S. for just under $30 per bottle. And, if you frequent high-end drinking establishments in our major cities (and hopefully some smaller ones) you will see it behind the bar. If you are a cocktail enthusiast looking to round out your home bar, run out and get yourself a bottle, and start experimenting. After all, a cocktail by any other name may taste as sweet… but that may be exactly NOT what the doctor ordered!

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