while i’ve been on Euro-Tour one of my Big Goals has been to drink as many different kinds of weird European bitters as possible, which has proven to be no small feat since many countries (such as Germany) have a wealth of such drinks, although outside of Italy they tend more toward the sweet than the truly bitter, however herbal and aromatic otherwise, and as i am the only person in the van with such an interest at heart, it is neither practical nor financially feasible to purchase every weird looking bottle with a plant on it that i come across (luckily some countries have little airplane-size bottles in corner stores. more on these later.).
i’m trying though, believe you me.
one exciting thing that i acquired this past winter (besides a fetching, if child-sized sheepskin vest, that i’ve been giving a serious wearing on this trip) was a bottle of Czech Fernet, which inspired me to do a little bit of research about Fernets Branca and otherwise, because i realized i didn’t know much about them. for those of you who don’t know (and have not read the piece i wrote for the National Post, which this one substantially overlaps), Fernet Branca is an intense aromatic Italian bitter, the taste of which has been variously likened to “black licorice-flavoured listerine,” “a cross between medicine, crushed plants and bitter mud,” and “poison, with aspirin crushed up in it.” it is, as you can imagine, an acquired taste, but like many acquired tastes, has its impassioned devotees. widely consumed in Italy, and wildly popular (with coke) in Argentina, it has since its invention in 1845 gone from a dubious local cure-all to a of generic type of bitter. although Fernet Branca, of the Fratelli Branca distillery, is the original, fernets of various constitution and national pedigree have proliferated over the years. each approximating, and i gather tuning to their own preferences, the closely guarded recipe of the standard bearer – all bitter, all herby, all all up in it.
i had heard that even Fernet Branca (which is usually what people mean when they just say “fernet,” as it’s the most commonly available, and exclusively so in Québec) varies somewhat according to destination market, and i’ve spent time meditating over glasses thereof in Canada, Italy, and the United States, but short of a direct comparison, i can’t say i could tell any difference that couldn’t otherwise be attributed to variations in barometric pressure, ambiance, or quality of hangover.
what follows are tasting notes i made this winter, having both Fernet Branca and its Czech counterpart (which claims, suspiciously, to be “established 1847) at hand:
by way of initial comparison, the Fernet Branca is 39% to Czech Fernet’s 38%, and is considerably darker. they both leave the signature oily sheen on the glass, although i would say that the Branca is a little more viscous. on the nose they’re distinguishable, but it’s slight, and i’m hard pressed to say what sets them apart. the Branca has a deeper, rounder aroma, and the Czech has almost a woody scent, and assails the nostrils less when drawn in deeply.
on the palate they are inarguably of the same cloth, although the Czech has what i might say is something of a cinnamon or clove taste, with less of the chilling, menthol or coniferous qualities of the Branca. neither does the Czech go so far back and linger in one’s throat, although it may be more bitter. it’s subtle, but there are more warming, winter spice notes in the Czech, faintly reminiscent of Becherovka, another signature Czech bitter. these notes are more understated than in Becherovka, but it’s interesting to think that it may be tending toward the familiar, Becherovka being the older of the two (although it’s hard to say how much the particular taste has changed over time), or a flavour profile that already resonates with the Czech palate. all in all, i think i prefer the Fernet Branca. it’s got a better mouthfeel, and that distinct coldness that contrasts so nicely with the ensuing warmth of the alcohol. and fundamentally, it just tastes a little crazier. the comparison reminds me how much of the character of Fernet Branca lies in the interplay between bitterness and and its weird mintiness that is not quite mint, suggesting perhaps some more distantly related cousin in mint’s family arbor. i could see the Czech being a little more flexible for cocktails, but consequently less distinct as well.
now to get my hands on some Riga Black Balsam, or finagle myself a free trip to NYC to check out Amor y Amarga in the East Village. i’m not keen on truck with no 18$ cocktail purveyors, but a reportedly unparalleled selection of bitters (at a tolerable 4$ / shot) and a housemade vermouth are not something i can pass on. clearly i need some dissipated and cirrhotic hedonist patron who will fund me to live vicariously through my gustatory exploits. or to join, say, a His Dark Materials-themed black metal band and tour central Europe and Scandinavia. which i am doing, and apparently forgot to mention explicitly. i am doing it right now.