Eduardo Branca on Growing up Branca, Fernet Fandom, and Scorpion Shots

In the spirits world, Fernet-Branca might be the smallest family business with the biggest global presence.

Founded in Milan in 1845, the Italian digestif is a secret mix of herbs and spices that originated as an anti-choleric.

Now enjoyed all over the world, Fernet-Branca is among the most recognizable styles of amaro, the bittersweet herbal liqueurs popularized in Europe which are now enjoying a new wave of fans. In the United States, Fernet is so popular among the drinks community that sharing a shot of the dark liquid is called a "bartender's handshake."

We sat down with Count Eduardo Branca, the sixth-generation family member at Fratelli Branca, to discuss the enduring popularity of Fernet, the strangest way he's ever had Fernet and how different countries enjoy drink his elixir. 

What was it like to grow up inside a family business?
Eduardo Branca: I never wanted to be involved in the family business. I had other interests I wanted to pursue.  Around eight years ago, my father needed my help and he told me, Eduardo, come and join the family business.

 Fernet Branca cocktail. Photo: Shannon Sturgis.

Fernet Branca cocktail. Photo: Shannon Sturgis.

[Before then,] I was a banker in London. I used to do mergers and acquisitions, numbers, numbers, numbers.

Why did you choose to have another career first?
When you're at the factory [and your name is Branca], everyone tells you yes. You don't grow up. In my opinion -- and my father's and grandfather's opinion -- I needed people looking at me in the eyes and saying, 'You made a mistake. You have to redo it. You have to do it well.' When you grow up in a family business where people know your surname, most people will tell you, 'Yes, you're right, you're completely right.'

So you weren't pressured as a young man to join right away?
No, because the same thing happened to my father and my grandfather. You have to grow your own personality to be a man. You have to let people tell when you make mistakes. You need to recognize you are not some kind of genius, and you need to  be humble.

Are you surprised by the massive success of Fernet-Branca?  In the U.S., at least, it's common for bartenders to do shots of Fernet each night.
Yes, I'm surprised. No, I'm not surprised.

I'm so happy that people are going back to amari without sugar. So I'm not surprised because I think people should go back to drink neat and bitter things.  But yes I'm surprised. I never expected to have such a big audience with bartenders. When the experts are drinking your products, it means you are doing a good job. 

How did this fandom start with the bartenders?
They discovered it by themselves. They started [looking at] herbal liqueurs. This is against me saying it, but Fernet is not for everybody. You need have arrived at a point of life where you've tried everything and want to have a different experience in liqueurs. 

Bartenders, in my small opinion, wanted something that was just for them.

When did this take off?
If you're speaking about the U.S., I would say 1999. It's become so popular in the last ten years.

Fernet, we never changed our recipe. We never added sugar more to make it more easy for people. We didn't [lower] the alcohol.  Fernet is a bit of a asshole, if you want to know. "I am what I am. I will not change for the general public. I will be something for people who understand liqueurs and who like liqueurs. 

Is Fernet is a style, like bourbon? Or is it a brand, like Coke? I was told the Fernet that people drink in Argentina is not the one we drink here in the U.S. 
We have two factories. One in Milan and in Buenos Aires. The Fernet Branca they drink in Argentina is Fernet Branca. 

 Fernet Branca's Eduardo Branca at an event in Chicago. Photo: Sammy Faze

Fernet Branca's Eduardo Branca at an event in Chicago. Photo: Sammy Faze

Depending on where you are in the world you have different ways of drinking Fernet Branca. In Europe, Spain, France, Germany, Italy they will drink Fernet Branca as a digestif or inside a coffee. In Norway, Sweden and Denmark, they will drink Fernet Branca as a morning drink. They want a clean palate after breakfast. In English-speaking countries, America, the U.K., and Australia, they will have it in shots, as a digestif or inside cocktails.

In Argentina they love Fernet. Instead of a vodka tonic or a gin and tonic, they ask for Fernet and Coke. It's called a Fernandito.

But in Argentina, there are other Fernets and they might be called things like 'Fernet Eduardo' or 'Fernet X...' People are copying us, trying to make the same product as us. I'm kind of proud of it because we are doing a good job. 

 Fernet Branca cocktail at the Spare Room in Los Angeles. Photo: Eugene Lee

Fernet Branca cocktail at the Spare Room in Los Angeles. Photo: Eugene Lee

When you have something good, you will have people trying to copy you. 

I get that Branca is the family name. Why 'Fernet'? Why isn't it called Amaro Branca?
We invented Fernet. We did a huge mistake 172 years ago by not registering [the word].*

[Editor's note: In his book, "Amaro", Brad Thomas Parsons notes that the first known fernet (Fernet Vittone) was trademarked in 1842, three years before Fernet-Branca. The book also names various producers of rival fernets.]

Do you consider Fernet a style?
I have people who would say that this a kind of a category, against our will. It's kind of weird, and nice as well. We've tried to protect it but it's difficult.

Where did the Fernet recipe originate from?
The recipe has never changed in 172 years. Fernandino Branca was an arborist. Fernet Branca was born as a medicine in 1845. One of the biggest causes of death in Milan at that time was dying of cholera. Between 1,000 and 3,000 people every year were dying of cholera. Fernandino wanted to find a cure for cholera. 

So he had a small batch of Fernet Branca. It was delivered to the hospitals, where it was given three times a day. When you have cholera, you throw up a lot and you have diarrhea, so you lose a great deal of the diet. If you have Fernet Branca, it will open up the upper part of your stomach, and you will start to eat. Some of the other herbs can cure your digestive system and so it will no longer be inflamed and food stays in your body. It was helping patients, and this is how Fernet Branca was born. 

Because it had alcohol, we moved from being a medicine to being a digestif and an aperitif. We advertised Fernet-Branca as an aperitivo and a digestif until the 1950s. If you have two fingers of Fernet-Branca before dinner you will get more hungry, and if you have it after dinner it will help you digest. 

When did you move from hospitals and medicine to after dinner drinks?
It was 1855. In the U.S., during Prohibition, we were the only spirit sold in the States as a medicine. We have a museum in Milan where we have old bottles where they are labeled "medicine." 

In all this time, has there been pressure to change the recipe?
Oh yeah, of course. We've had a lot of marketing directors.

My grandfather used to tell me, 'Eduardo, I hired a few marketing directors that would come into the company and tell me, Pere Luigi, you should change the recipe, not age the product for 12 to 16 months. You should lower your alcohol content. You should add sugar. You see all these other amaros, they are doing it and selling so much more.' 

And the next day you had the bags of the guy outside the company. 

We've been selling the product for 172 years.  Changing the product inside means you didn't have the same properties as when Fernet Branca was born. We're a family business.

[Picks up a bottle and points to the label.] On the first row here, if I or my father screws up, you have where the company is. This is the street name, and because in those days you didn't have Google maps and GPS, if you don't find us, it says, we're near the church of San Tomaso. 

 A guest at Fernet Branca's "Storied Sips" event in New York City. Photo: Shannon Sturgis.

A guest at Fernet Branca's "Storied Sips" event in New York City. Photo: Shannon Sturgis.

We don't use colorants. We don't add sugar that's not from the distillation. All our herbs and spices, we buy them. We have a final product [with ingredients sourced] from four different continents all over the world. 

How do you store your Fernet?
I think the best way is you keep it as a bottle of wine. Some of the taste will change because the alcohol will eat the spices. So some notes will become stronger. 

Scotch, once you bottle it, it doesn't change. But wine does. So is this closer to a wine?
It will change. 

27 herbs inside, a secret recipe. One of the herbs is myrrh, we put a small amount inside the bottle. Over the years it will disappear, because all the other spices will tend to take over, actually.

What other products do you make?
Branca Menta. It is black. A lot of people tell me, 'Eduardo, it's full of mint -- why is it black?' It's because we don't use colorants and mint is black. When you see mint-flavored ice cream and it's green, it's because of colorants. 

What's the strangest way you've ever had Fernet?
Over scorpions in China. He put the scorpion [over fire], and poured Fernet on top of it. And then turned the scorpion around, and put more Fernet Branca on top until he died. Over and over, and then you take the scorpion and you eat it. 

Trust me. Scorpions are really good to eat. They taste.. like fries. A kind of fries.

How much Fernet does it take to kill a scorpion?
It's the fire that kills the scorpion. 

 Fernet Branca at Chicago's Gilt Bar. Photo: Sammy Faze

Fernet Branca at Chicago's Gilt Bar. Photo: Sammy Faze