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Medicine Milano, Liqueur International – The Worldwide Minty Bitter that is Fernet Branca

Brand Spotlight: Fernet Branca (Fratelli Branca)

Region: Milan, Italy

 

The bartender's handshake. The "like-it-or-hate-it" liqueur. The liqueur, that for some reason, has transcended from the physical realm of popular drinks to a sort-of cult, with an inner circle of fanatics coming to its defence around the globe. If there can be a liqueur that could personify Pitbull’s Mr Worldwide – I think a worthy contender would be Fernet Branca. I mean – the brand that literally displays the globe on its logo.

 

I have recently been to the Museo Branca, where Roberta Pala, the International Marketing Coordinator of the Fernet Branca team, was the tour guide. Before getting into our escapade, a deep dive into this world famous minty liqueur.

Let's dissect the name for one. Fernet refers to bitter liqueurs originating from Italy - with the recipes varying brand to brand. The latter half, Branca, refers to the family name of founder and self-taught herbalist Bernardino Branca. In the 1840s, Bernardino sought to create a cure for the diseases rife in his lifetime, such as cholera, malaria, worms, and even menstrual pain.

 

Souce: The Vision

A manufacturing plant was opened in 1845, right in Corso di Porta Nuova, Milan. Bernardino's sons, Luigi, Giuseppe and Stefano, joined to spread the word of the herbal liqueur throughout Italy, and steadily, case after case were making ways within and outside the country. The torch to helm the distillery was passed on to Stefano, and then to his wife, Maria Branca Scala upon his passing.

 

Stefano Branca. Source: Branca USA

Fernet Branca Flies Around The World

While Fernet Branca was an Italian product through and through, it had its consituents from around the world. The family-guarded secret recipe consists of 27 herbs and spices that span four continents across the globe.

 

What's kept secret is the composition and how the herbs and spices are treated to create the Fernet Branca. Spices and herbs include: Chinese rhubarb from China, gentian from France, cacao from Brazil, and saffron from Iran.

Came the start of the 20th century, and Fernet Branca was in need of a branding refresh. Enter Leopoldo Metlicovitz: Italian painter, illustrator, poster designer, and one of the five fathers of modern Italian poster design. in 1895, Melticovitz was commissioned to design the new logo for Fernet Branca. Within the logo, the eagle is carrying a bottle of Fernet Branca in its talons and soaring across the earth.

 

 

As more Italians migrated to South America, and specifically Argentina, bringing the liqueur soared with them. In 1907, the company started to export to the country, and eventually in 1941, a distillery in Buenos Aires was built to keep up in demand. The distillery remains the only place Fernet Branca is produced outside of Italy today.

 

Source: Wikipedia

However, that wasn't necessarily the case. In 1930, a distillery was built in Alasce, France as well. Before Prohibition hit the United States, the fernet was widely drunk as well, where a production plant was built on 131 Hudson St in New York in 1931. Even during Prohibition, Fernet Branca rebranded itself to a "medicine", evading detection through pharmaceutical shops.

 

Source: Fernet USA

From Distillery To Cultural Landmark

In 1907, when the torch was passed from Maria to Dino Branca, the distillery would find its new forever home at Resegone 2, Milan. This address remains the current production house for the liqueur, while at the same time, doubling as the Fernet Branca Museum (Museo Branca, which we visited).

 

Source: Wine Searcher

When Dino's son, Pierluigi, took over the helm, he sought to streamline, consolidate, and commercialise the liqueur. The production of Fernet Branca was concentrated to Italy aside from the Bueno Aires branch. In 1965, the next iconic sibling of the original, the Fernet Branca Menta, was released - featuring a species of peppermint native to the Italy. The Branca Menta was said to be inspired by the opera singer Maria Callas and the enjoyment and pursuit of novelty in a post-war economic boom.

 

The tagline for this liqueur was simply Brrr, Brancamenta. Sometimes, less is really more.Source: Branca USA

In a bold move in 1985, the company struck an agreement with the Milan city government to rename the Torre del Parco (Park Tower), located in Sempione Park, to the Branca Tower. Originally built in 1933, the tower was renamed Torre del Parco - the tower needed restoration.

 

Torre Branca. Source: Wikipedia

By forking out the expense for its restoration, Fernet Branca got permission to rename the tower to Torre Branca. The iron panoramic view tower was fully restored in 2002, and was open to public, becoming a bit of a darling to the Milanese. During this time, Fratelli Branca (the business name) acquired a few brands into their portfolio, such as wine and olive oil.

Source: milan.welcomemagazine

Niccolò Branca, Pierluigi’s son, took over the business, and under his chairmanship, the Museo Branca was opened in 2009. In 2015, Fernet Branca celebrated its 170th anniversary, commissioning many art projects - the most iconic being the repainting and restyling of the chimney of the via Resegone plant by Orticanoodles, inspired by the many herbs and plants in the herbal liqueur.

 

The splash of colour really added to the landscape, coming from someone who visited the place. Source: ninjamarketing.it

Branca Mania, Or Secret Language?

It still begs the question - how did Fernet Branca gain its cult-like status?

For most of its history, Fernet Branca was drunk neat as a digestif, something that, as the name implies, aids in digestion after a meal. However, the 1980s rolled along, and a new drink was to be born.

A blog post wrote of Fernet Branca being drunk neat in the 1950s, a shared experience amongst Italian immigrants in the United States.

You may have heard of the Fernet & Coca-Cola combo. While no one knows for sure, it has been generally agreed that this concoction was born in Córdoba City, Argentina's second most populated city. Some theories pointed towards the ingenuity of university students creating the concoction, and Fratelli Branca, being on top of their game, rode on this wave and promoted the drink hard.

 

Source: puertolaboca.com

Fernet Branca has became such a sensation in Argentina that it accounts for 75% of all Fernet Branca drunk globally today. The unofficial national cocktail, Fernet con coca, is a mix of roughly three parts fernet to seven parts Coca-cola - which was allegedly responsible for an increase in Coca-cola consumption as well. Between 1994 and 1997, Coca-Cola officially co-branded with Fernet Branca to promote the drink, and in 2020, this cocktail, named fernandito, became recognized as an official cocktail by the International Bartender's Association (IBA).

Note that the serving suggestion by IBA is a little bit different from the informal recipe I was personally told by Argentinians during my visit to Museo Branca - 50ml Coca Cola and topped up with Fernet Branca.

While Fernet Branca was very much an ordinary layman's drink in Argentina, the liqueur takes on a different meaning up north, and much more specifically, in San Fransisco.

Fernet Branca was dubbed the "bartender's handshake" amongst the bar scene in the city, and it was almost customary to serve a fellow bartender visiting your bar a shot of fernet to show that you indeed had good taste.

 

The Bartender's Handshake. Source: [Youtube]  Fratelli Branca Distillerie "Fernet About It"

Ironically enough, Fernet Branca was known for its "three sips": on the first sip, you hate it; on the second sip, you get used to it; and on the third sip, you get addicted to it. Many people, including bartenders, wince their faces the first time they try Fernet Branca. However, anecdotally, the uniquely complex and flavourful liqueur provided not only a tool to create complex cocktails, but its uniquely dry profile neat was just the thing many bartenders needed to wash down a frantic shift.

 

Holly Graham is known to be a huge fan of Fernet Branca - from bringing it to dinner parties to having a shot with her last meal. Source: Instagram

As if the cult-like regard bartenders had for Fernet wasn't enough, in 2013, Fernet Branca coins were in circulation - a callback to a time when military veterans showed coins to each other as proof of brotherhood. Just that this time, instead of holding the frontlines, its a sign of solidarity being at the bar counter.

 

A "bartender handshake" was when a bartender passes a shot of Fernet Branca to the next bartender taking over the shift. Source: Fernet Branca

Currently, we're in the midst of getting hold of a bottle of Fernet Branca (as of this time of writing) to do a proper tasting, so meanwhile, how about you check out our visit to Museo Branca?

 

@vernoncelli