Of note, this would actually be A Tale of Three Fernets, had I been more patient. I acquired Fernet Stock a few weeks ago and tried it. Unfortunately, it tasted horrible and artificial. Pushing past the syrupy fake caramel flavors and aromas proved impossible, and I dumped the whole bottle.
Additionally, it’s worth noting that this is far from exhaustive. There are a multitude of Fernets out there, these are just two particularly nice examples.
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Fernet is a particular type of amaro (Italian for “bitter”). In my encounters, the liqueur is bottled somewhere between 78 and 92 proof, putting it at the same alcohol by volume as a bottle of vodka or gin. As a general rule, it’s a bracing combination of intense bitterness, sweetness, mint, and herbs.
For a good introduction to Fernet-Branca, one can listen to Bill Cosby explain it. I can’t provide a better introduction. Of the Italian Fernets I’ve tried, Fernet-Branca is by far the best. Wayne Curtis also provides a brief introduction at The Atlantic. In particular, he describes its taste as “like Fernet Branca.” Nailed it.
I love Fernet as a digestif, it’s enjoyable and calming to my stomach. Later in the evening, I’m more likely to reach for a shot of Fernet on the rocks than my bottle of Tums. But, then, it’s pretty fantastic any time even when you’re not belching up sparrow burps. Fernet prides itself on a lot of different flavor compounds, but most famously corners the market on saffron of all things. I’m not going I say I can pick out the saffron in particular, but it’s all part of the experience.
The nose is of caramel (somewhat chemical/artificial smelling, there), mint, and anise, with just a hint of herbal character. On the palate, the (somewhat unpleasant) candy caramel flavor dominates at first, giving way to heavy mint up front, with a crisp and bitter finish – more flavors of baking spice and less of that grassy herbal character on the front-palate and nose.
I love Fernet-Branca.
Fernet Leopold is a relatively new entry from Leopold Brotheres. The bottle isn’t even on their site when I last checked, but it most definitely exists. For lovers of Fernet-Branca, there are some familiar characteristics, but this is definitely a different drink.
Fernet Leopold is the same color but more pale than Fernet-Branca. In every other way it’s stronger and more assertive.
The proof is similar (80 versus 78-proof). Though most of Fernet-Branca’s ingredients are secret, we know that there are three different mints involved in its production. For this liqueur, mine dominates the nose and initial experience on the palate. On the nose there’s a lot of cardamom, baking spices, pine, lavender, aloe, and I’m not sure what else.
On the palate, it hits you with bracing acidity and bitterness, with pine, cardamom, clove, menthol … there’s a lot going on. The finish is quite long, and packed with … cardamom again.
There’s an absurd amount of complexity in this beverage, but it seems to be out of balance; trying hard and not achieving grace. Undoubtedly the more challenging of the pair to enjoy, which is saying a lot for this genre of spirits. On the upside, it does not seem to suffer from the slightly chemical/artificial characteristics of the Fernet-Branca.
I like a little bit of cardamom, but this is far too much. I like the creative twist of the Fernet Leopold. I think it has a lot more potential, but the balance is just not there. With that said, if you love cardamom-heavy amari, this is not one to miss.
Chilled, a lot of the bitterness and acid seems to disappear, leaving a syrupy sweet (not unpleasant) sensation and increased smoothness. Unfortunately, it does not knock out the cardamom, which now even more violently overpowers the rest of the drink.
If you’re a Fernet fan, it’s worth trying a taste, but I’m not sure I’d invest in a bottle at this point unless it’s reformulated.