The Italian amaro was invented in 1845 by Bernardino Branca and enjoyed popularity because of such cocktails as the Toronto, first mentioned in Robert Vermiere’s 1922 book Cocktails: How to Make Them, and the Hanky Panky, created by Ada Coleman of the American Bar at the Savoy in 1925. The bitter spirit is made from a grab bag of herbs, spices, barks, and other mystery ingredients. While some are known—peppermint, chamomile, saffron, and myrrh among them—the list is kept secret by the Branca family. At one time, Fernet was used almost exclusively as a digestif.
Now, with bartenders across the world reviving old cocktails, Fernet-Branca is experiencing a renaissance. Seattle’s Canon serves a Toronto, while the Hanky Panky appears on the menu at Whislers in Austin. (You can find the recipes for these classics below.)
Originally bitter on the palate—almost acrid—Fernet slowly turns sweet in the mouth. A hint of what could be mint (but is actually saffron) spreads across the tongue, and gradually you’re ready for more. If you’re familiar with the German digestif Jägermeister, with its licorice-forward palate, this will seem similar. It’s less syrupy, though: Fernet-Branca has among the lowest sugar contents of any amaro, according to Geoff Kleinman of DrinkSpirits.