I have been drinking Fernet since 2012, way before it was cool and in every other bar in Charleston. However, I was also drinking it differently than people around here drink it.
See, Fernet is an Amaro, which is a liqueur brewed with a plethora of herbs and spices. Fernet Branca, the most popular Amaro brand in Charleston, has an incredibly long list of ingredients – only the founder of the company knows the specifics – but its base alcohol comes from distilled grapes.
Though certain local mixologists have created complex cocktails aimed to extract only certain flavors within Fernet, most Charlestonians consume it via shot. To me, however, taking a shot of Fernet is similar to taking a shot of Grand Marnier. In fact, when the founders of Grand Marnier visited Charleston because we became the largest purchaser of the liqueur outside of France, they were horrified when they saw people shooting it. The problem with shooting liqueurs such as these is that you completely miss the subtle complexity of flavor that make them special.
The other problem with shooting Fernet is that it is ridiculously bitter. “Bitter” is the most distinctive facet of its flavor profile. If you order a shot of Fernet at a bar, the bartender will either think you are crazy or a professional. That being said, you might get even wilder looks if you order it how I drink it. Some responses I have received are, “You want a Fernet and coke? More like dirt and coke,” or, “Oh… I’ve never heard that one… Is it… good?”
These are uninformed reactions. Sure, Fernet is the most bitter and most herbal drink you may ever try, but its flavor is too complex to ignore. I have a thing for intriguing tasting drinks.
- La Manuela
- 1.5 oz Fernet Branca
- Mexican Coke
- Fill a rocks glass with ice
- Pour in the Fernet
- Top with Mexican Coke
- Stir gently, a few times
- Remember, Small Sips
I met one of my best friends, Manuel, when I was a freshman at my previous University. We were both playing basketball alone, on opposite sides of the court. I asked him to play one-on-one, and about five games later we were best friends. The first time I ever really drank was at a small party with him. We drank Coronas and tequila shots. The entire night, apparently, there was a drinking game being played throughout the room. If you lost the game, you took a shot. I never picked up on the fact that we were playing a game. I took a lot of shots.
At a certain point, Manuel asked if we wanted to go downtown, and I was like, “Hell yeah! Let’s go out!” I also remember immediately turning to my other best friend, Parker, and asking for a trashcan. He ended up walking me to the bathroom and feeding me bread and water as I got sick. There is an important lesson in that: always have a friend like Parker around, someone who will do anything for you. Anyway, I could not stomach tequila after that until very recently.
But Manuel’s introduction to drinking – and how not to do it – opened up a whole new world to me. He is from Bolivia, and he would always tell stories of these mystical alcohols he would drink at home. We were all dying to try them, and the first one we actually got to taste was Fernet. He brought some back from Bolivia after a Christmas break and showed us how to make a whole pitcher of it, mixing it with coke. To this day, the drink still tastes like those memories.
A Fernet and coke is strong, herbal and biter. It is thick and heavy, but in a medicinal way. It sits well on the stomach and is a great post-meal digestif. When you mix it with Mexican coke – the cokes in the glass bottles that say “Refresco” – it becomes a perfectly simple, go-to cocktail while still tasting way more interesting than a whisky coke. The spicy sweetness of the Mexican coke pairs incredibly well with the herbal bitterness of the Fernet, making it both soothing and complex, comforting and intriguing. Fernet is also about 80 proof, so just as the slang translation of “La Manuela” implies, it gets the job done.