Everyone has the same face when they first take a shot of Fernet Branca. I like to call it the “why-face.” As in, “Why in the world did you just suggest I drink this?” The answer is always the same, too. I frickin’ love Fernet and eventually you (probably) will, too. Unfortunately, when you first start drinking it, Fernet kind of hates you. It’s one of the most bitter kinds of amaro on the shelf, with a thick, viscous texture and a vaguely medicinal flavor. It’s terrifying right off the bat, with a deep, dark color that loosely resembles a vat of walnut wood lacquer. But, no matter how bad your first experience with Fernet is, you’ll probably give it another try.
There’s something about the 19th century Italian liqueur that just pulls you in. Maybe it’s the beautiful label, attracting you like the siren she is, or perhaps it’s the intrigue of a mixture that still keeps five of its 27 ingredients a secret (true story: the CEO personally mixes them in a locked room so no one knows what they are). Whatever it is, one day you’ll realize that it doesn’t taste like black-licorice-flavored Listerine anymore, and is instead full of subtle and nuanced bitter flavors. Before you know it, that oh-too-thick texture starts to feel seductively rich, and you’ve acquired a taste for the strange liquid.
You might disagree. That’s okay – I know you’ll come around – but there are plenty of amaro in the sea to help you get there. Fernet is an extreme example of this category of herbal liqueurs, and other types feature less-bitter flavors to help you build up your tolerance. Each bottle has a unique flavor, with some more syrupy than others to help counterbalance the bitterness, but each brand has a unique flavor that showcases the terroir where their ingredients are grown. I sat down with Dave Woodruff and Lucas Hess of El Moro to find out more about these types of liqueurs and what they bring to mixology.
Over the years, the cocktail program at El Moro has definitely evolved. What started as an attempt make things from scratch like their kitchen team has turned into a veritable collection of infusions, and ultimately a menu filled with drinks that have a story. Whether it’s the homemade tonic inspired by a Jeffrey Morgenthaler book, or their signature triple sec for their margaritas, they love being innovative and pushing the envelope. Mixology and making your own liquor infusions might seem grandiose, but they’re actually super easy to make at home – and they’ll tell you how if you ask. That isn’t to say that it all happens naturally, though – Woodruff and Hess still laugh when they recall a not-so-great idea that turned the bar into a make-your-own-volcano science experiment.
It’s usually not that dramatic, though, and begins by playing around with flavors. It’s only natural that the team became intrigued with amari as they went along. Once they started mixing it into drinks, they realized how incredible these bittering agents were at creating balanced cocktails. It inspired confidence – if they could mix something as abrasive as Fernet and create a drink that everyone would love, there’s really nothing they couldn’t do. Before they knew it, they had collected over 30 different amari on the shelves. Their towering library of a liquor collection shows off those bright and beautiful bottles, and you’ll probably recognize a few – like Campari for your Negroni, Averna for a Black Manhattan, or Aperol and Nonino for my favorite, the Paper Plane.
Of all the many bottles, Fernet is the go-to for many patrons. It’s so popular that El Moro not only sells it on a nitro tap, but they also boast the second-most sales in the state. It’s known in some circles as the Bartender’s Handshake. As they explain the tradition, both Woodruff and Hess drop something called a challenge coin on the table. The loud thunk of this coveted coin hitting the bar indicates a membership into a community of mixologists and craft-minded bartenders. These coins are heavy-hitting proof that you’re in-the-know, but you don’t need a coin to belong to this family. Just ordering a Fernet is like having the secret password to an exclusive event. It’s an indication that you can handle complexity and bitterness, and it’ll probably open up some great conversations with the bartender or the stranger sitting next to you.
If you don’t have much experience with Fernet, now is a good time to hop in. On August 23, El Moro and the Bookcase and Barber are hosting a Battle of the Brands. You’ll find a handful of Fernet Branca cocktails at El Moro, while the Bookcase will showcase Träkál, a Patagonian brandy-like liquor made from apples and pears. Whoever sells more is the “winner,” but the real winners are Trails 2000 and Boys and Girls club, who benefit from the proceeds.
Lindsay D. Mattison is a professional chef and food writer living in Durango. She enjoys long walks in the woods, the simplicity of New York-style cheese pizza, and she’s completely addicted to Chapstick. Contact her at [email protected].