Liquid Riot Bottling Company is at it again with yet another new release. This time it’s even more unique than their agave spirit: it’s a fernet. This… this is a big deal. No one else around has a fernet. Not many people even know what a fernet is. If you don’t know, now you’ll know.
Fernet is a strange spirit. It’s an aromatic, bitter, herbal, Italian amaro. What’s amaro? Right, not many people know that either. Ok, so an amaro (pl. amari) is a bitter herbal Italian liqueur, in fact it’s literally the Italian word for “bitter.” It’s usually made from a base of grape brandy, then infused with a blend of herbs, roots, spices. Sugar is added making it a liqueur not liquor, regardless of abv. They’re considered potable (drinkable) bitters, as opposed to cocktail bitters which are far too concentrated to drink on their own. Fernet is a specific type of amaro, just like Bourbon is a specific type of whiskey. Amari are kind of their own unique thing, and are generally used as a digestif. Some amari you may have heard of are Campari, Aperol, Cynar, Chartreuse, Amaro Ramazzotti, Underberg, Becherovka, and Jägermeister. Yes, Jäger, the bane and boon of frat bros, is actually a sophisticated after-dinner beverage. There’s an anecdote that the Germans were horrified to learn that American students pound multiple shots of Jäger, on purpose, recreationally. You’re doing it wrong. It’s designed to be sipped or taken in small amounts (think dainty little cordial glasses) to settle your stomach after a big meal of German sauerkraut and bratwurst.
[Note: Technically, the German ones are actually “Kräuterlikör” (“herbal liqueur”) as the term “amaro” refers only to Italian liqueurs. With the rediscovery of more interesting European drinkables and the rising popularity of fernet, “amaro” in America has become more of a blanket term to describe bitter herbal liqueurs.]
Amari are said to have medicinal qualities, with their herbal blends acting as cures for indigestion and hangovers. I can vouch for their stomach-settling powers: next time you eat too much, follow it with a shot of Jäger. If you can stand the taste, it will soothe your stomach in minutes.
So, an amaro is a bitter herbal liqueur, and fernet is a type of amaro. Fernet Branca is the most recognized of the fernets, and has become more popular in this country following the craft cocktail resurgence. Allegedly, it’s so popular in San Francisco that bars have been putting it on tap. Fernet Branca has been known as the “bartender’s handshake,” an industry nod to fellow bartenders. Fernet Branca is often consumed at the end of a shift, bracing but bitter, counteracting sweeter beverages consumed earlier. These are taken less for their alcohol content (though Fernet Branca, one of the boozier examples, clocks in at 39%abv/78 proof) but more for the herbal digestif qualities. While amari vary greatly in flavor from orange peel to black licorice, fernet is more in the herbal camp. Fernet Branca, whose exact recipe is on Coca-Cola levels of secrecy, is said to contain 27 ingredients, including mint, rhubarb, chamomile, aloe, saffron, and cardamom. The flavor of Fernet Branca is a bit difficult to describe, given the varied ingredients, but some stronger components are black licorice, mint/menthol, and eucalyptus. It’s often compared to mouthwash with licorice, though usually by people who don’t enjoy the flavor.
With such a divisive flavor, what can you do with this stuff? Aside from taking it neat or on the rocks to sip, it mixes surprisingly well. Fernet Branca and Coca-Cola is the national drink of Argentina. Fernet and ginger ale makes a lovely drink at the end of a boozy weekend, and will set you right for Monday morning. Due to its bitter taste, fernet can be used in place of cocktail bitters: a Manhattan with a good dash of fernet is called a Fanciulli. Or, you can use it as the base spirit itself, as in the Hanky Panky or aptly named Fernet Branca Cocktail.
Now that you know what a fernet style amaro is, let’s taste Liquid Riot’s version.
Nose: Minty, but not harsh, both bright peppermint with softer and sweeter spearmint. More toothpaste compared to Fernet Branca’s antiseptic mouthwash. Soft potpourri, dry wood. No alcoholic sting.
Taste: Warm. Mint, wood, spice, bark. On the drier flavor side, more bark than fresh mint. Slight syrupy viscous mouthfeel, but not coating. fresh mint tingle finish. Very nice.
Here’s how they make it: Fernet Michaud (Fur-nett Mee-show) starts with a base of neutral grain spirit (NGS). It’s run through the still and filtered like their vodka, but is wheat based, rather than a more traditional grape brandy start. The NGS is infused with 22 herbs and ingredients in stainless steel drums over a period of three days. Some ingredients, like aloe, birch bark, and rhubarb root, are added on the first day to allow them a longer time to steep. They’re also the harder, more root-like ingredients that need more time to soften and release flavor. Day Two brings some anise, fennel, and licorice, and finally three types of mint are added on the third day, as these are more potent and would affect the flavor too much to be added sooner. The infused spirit is then aged for 5-6 months in Maine blueberry wine barrels. They’re not looking for too much barrel flavor here, but rather getting the ingredients to rest and mingle the various flavors. After the aging is over, the fernet is backsweetened with some agave nectar (the same used in their agave spirit), filtered, and bottled into a 750ml wine bottle, complete with Liquid Riot’s cap and swing top.
While there are some other amari and bitter liquerus around, at this time no other specific fernet is being produced in Maine, or even in New England. That’s why it’s kind of a big deal, and makes this a very unique product, though likely with a bit of a niche market. Though the flavor may be a bit of an acquired taste, the digestif properties of fernet are well worth it. The herbal qualities will set you right if you’re feeling nauseous or overfull. It’s magical.
Fernet Michaud releases Thursday, December 17, 2015 at Liquid Riot’s Commercial Street location, and retail shelves including RSVP over the weekend. The 750ml bottle is priced at $31.99, very competitive to Fernet Branca’s ~$30 (in Maine), a surprisingly small difference for a local craft product. A second batch will be released soon, and the distillery hopes to have this product in a fairly regular production. Go try a bottle.
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