One of the highlights of our trip was visiting the Fernet Branca plant.  Being at Branca itself was only matched by our fabulously gracious guides Marco Ponzano and Nicola Olianas.

 

Marco and I in front of the huge barrel of Stravecchio Branca, a 3-year aged brandy

As the brand history goes, in 1845 Bernadino Branca, an Milanese doctor, joined forces with a Swedish pharmacist Dr. Fernet to combine 27 herbs and plants to create a treatment for cholera.  The 5th generation of the Branca family continues to produce this amaro (bitter) that we enjoy today straight as an apertivo or digestivo, or in the popular Fernet and cola, known as Fernandito.  Brian, Jeff and I tried this upon our return home and although I was skeptical, I have to admit it was pretty good.  Fernet Branca is said to both stimulate the appetite, as well as aid in digestion; and its said to help with a hang-over.

Fernet bottles through the years. Heaven.

 

On the one hand, the taste of Fernet is similar to many amaros—bitter, of course, and herbaceous.  But at the same time, it is totally different.  I get a strong menthol fragrance and the earthly flavors for which I have no reference (have you ever tasted myrrh?) are strong on my palette.  I also enjoyed tasting Brancamenta which is as Nicola described a “mint explosion” in your mouth.  Developed in the early 1960s, this liquer is made by adding sugar and mint to a year-aged Fernet.  The story behind the “Brrrrranacamenta” marketing campaign is very funny.

Fernet is an international phenomenon.  As early as 1860, Fernet was present in international markets.  The Branca’s understood the importance of marketing.  When Maria Scala Branca took control of the company in 1891, marketing efforts really took off.  To counter confusion between the real Fernet Branca and the many “copycats”, the Branca World brand was born in the form of the logo image created by Leopoldo Metlicovitz—globe held up by an eagle.  In true Milanese style, posters and calendars not only advertised the product, but can also be viewed a works of art in and of themselves.  One of my favorites features two mermaids balancing the Branca world symbol as they playfully romp in the ocean—pretty racy for the late 19th century.

The display of the 27 ingredients that make up Fernet Branca was pretty cool.  We got to handle and smell wonderful things like mace, chamomile, Chinese rubarb, and myrhh.  While we didn’t get to touch and smell the very expensive saffron, we learned that that is what gives Fernet its golden color. Swirl it in a glass sometime and check out the amazing gorgeous hue.  Supposedly only Nicola Branca, the 5th generation of the family to oversee the company, has access to the recipe. When a new batch needs to be made, either in Milano or Argentina (the only two places Fernet Branca is produced), Nicola takes the recipe and oversees the measurement/mixture of herbs.

This is the spice table. Have you ever? That's Marco to my right in the glasses, knit tie and blue blazer,and Nicola to my left with the notebook.

The last stop on the tour was the aging room—500 barrels filled with Fernet.  Each barrel holds about 2,000 bottles!  The  minute you step off the elevator the sweet-bitter, potent aroma fills your nose– just wonderful.   I can see why this part of the tour is kept short—you could get drunk from the boozy fumes.

Again, like most of my best spirit experiences, it’s not the booze that makes it, it’s the people.  Marco and Nicola gave us the basic Branca story but infused it with so many interesting personal stories that made the afternoon extra special. To Marco, Nicola and Fernet Branca. Salute!

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