Fratelli Branca Fernet
La Fontana, Milan (Lombardy)
750ml, 1970’s, 45% ABV
Invented by Bernardino Branca in the early 19th century, Fratelli Branca still produces the most recognized brand of fernet in the world. Taking note from smaller producers in northern Italy, such as Angelo Gentile and Felice Vittone, Bernardino and his brother solidified their market presence with the construction of their first facility in 1845.
The truth, as is the case with so many types of amaro, is that there isn’t a single individual that can honestly be accredited with the creation of fernet. The name its self loosely translates to “clean iron” in the Milanese dialect eluding to clean blood or a blood tonic, something that was commonly marketed in northern Italy going back to the 15th century.
Other historians of the subject, such as Leno Rubini of Romano di Lombardi, believes it refers to the long metal rods that were once used to stir the essential saffron as it caramelized in cauldrons prior to maceration. Now in his 70’s Leno spent 30 years working at the now defunct Giardi distillery of Bergamo, once a short ride from his home.
Regardless of its origins Fratelli Branca has played a critical role in fernet’s production, refinement, marketing and distribution. Bottles bearing the world and eagle crest have been manufactured and shipped all over the world for over a hundred years.
In their golden age Fratelli Branca operated production facilities all over the world including 10 in Europe to meet local demand. One of Bernardino’s cousins, Giuseppe Branca, even operated one in Tribeca of New York City which lasted through prohibition selling its production as a potable bitter for health.
With the advent of modern shipping, technological advances in production and ever evolving management Fratelli Branca consolidated all of their production in Milan and Buenos Aires by 2000.
Like many time honored products production shifts and changes over the years, Fernet Branca is far from an exception. The most noticeable difference between current production and those from decades before is alcohol content. Bernardino originally conceived his fernet at an ABV of 45%, since the 1990’s it has been proofed down to 39%. A logical motive for this would have been Fratelli Branca’s desire to increase the product it could bring to market at a lower cost of goods. Regardless the flavor profile between the two expressions is night and day. The higher ABV leads to higher solubility of the organic compounds macerated in the spirit allowing for a much deeper concentration of flavor. Also noted is the far less palatable “mentholated” character that is often associated with the brand.
In addition to lowering the alcohol content Fratelli Branca made other noticeable changes to their production. The essential component of aloe ferrox (pictured above to the left) was reduced dramatically. The dried resin of the plant was used for its aid in digestion, color (it should also be noted that caramel coloring is now used as well) and a distinctive sandalwood/cedar aromatic.
The original process of co-maceration was also discontinued in favor of single maceration. Simply speaking this means that all the botanicals are independently macerated in different mediums, volumes and temperatures (pictured above and to the right is an example of individual tanks at Fratelli Branca in the reparto decotti e infusi a caldo or decoctions department and hot infusions) and later blended.
The result is a far more disjointed expression, despite the aggressive barrel regiments they still adhear to. Fewer top notes standout and dominate the rest of the flavor in older bottles and despite the higher ABV the heat is far less present.