Prohibition’s Medicine Is Today’s Top Amaro

Dan Dunn
Sixth-generation family member Edoardo Branca, manager Fratelli Branca’s business in the U.S.

Edoardo Branca recently wrapped a multicity U.S. tour to promote Branca: A Spirited Italian Icon ($35), a gorgeous coffee-table book that details the history of his family’s 174-year-old company, Fratelli Branca, the producer of one of the world’s best-known amaros.

At each stop on the tour, Branca offered up rich tales about the Milan-based brand along with vintage pours of Fernet-Branca and custom amaro-based cocktails, such as the Hanky Panky and A Little Drop of Poison. If only other book events were half this much fun. Edoardo, a sixth-generation Branca family member, manages Fratelli Branca’s business in the U.S.—and business, he tells us, is good.

How was the tour? Gain some new fans?

The tour was amazing. And, thankfully, we seem to be getting more and more fans by the day.

The bartending community in San Francisco is often credited with spearheading the brand’s resurgence in popularity in the U.S. San Francisco accounts for somewhere in the neighborhood of 25 percent of all U.S. sales of the product. To what do you attribute the love affair between that town and this spirit?

The first receipt for sale of Fernet-Branca in the U.S. is from 1862 in San Francisco. It’s hard to explain because the product originated in Milan, so you’d expect New York City or somewhere on the East Coast to be the first place it was sold. But there’s just always been this mythical connection between San Francisco and Fernet-Branca.

How was Fernet-Branca able to survive Prohibition when so many other liqueur brands went out of business?

Fernet-Branca was created as an anti-choleric, because back in the 1800s, cholera was a big problem in Milan. So it wasn’t born as a liqueur; it was born as a medicine. When we started to export to the United States, we were sold in pharmacies as well as in bars. When Prohibition was instituted, the Food & Drug Administration determined that Fernet-Branca could still be sold as medicine, so that’s how we kept going.

Many bartenders claim that Fernet-Branca doesn’t cause hangovers. True?

Okay, so if you drink a bottle all by yourself, you’re going to have a hangover the next morning. That’s a given. But in comparison to other spirits, Fernet-Branca doesn’t give such bad hangovers. That’s actually true.

Why is that?

I can’t tell you. It’s a secret.

The Amaro category has really expanded over the past decade. You’re one of the oldest brands around. How do you feel about all the new kids on the block?

It’s flattering that there are people out there who are trying to copy our product, but I think it’s going to be very difficult. Fernet-Branca has 27 different herbs, and there’s 174 years of history behind it. It can’t be copied. But they’re trying, and it’s flattering.

Is it true that the U.S. government forced Fernet-Branca to alter its recipe (to lower opiate levels) to conform to the Drug Regulation Reform Act of 1978?

That’s just an ugly rumor. The recipe has never changed.

The best-known cocktail made with Fernet-Branca is the Hanky Panky. What do you think of the name? It’s rather silly, no?

Absolutely not. I think it’s important in this life to never take yourself too seriously. Hanky Panky—I’ll have one of those. That sounds like a fun time.