Fernet Branca is the most famous of Fernet’s brands, itself is a cousin of the Swedish bitter aka Elixir du Suedois. What? What are Swedish bitters? Also called Swedish tincture, is a bitter and a traditional herbal tonic, the use of which dates back to the 15th century. Or even before. A Fernet is a bitter and it can also be a liqueur depending of the sugar level of the beverage. Actually you may also find alcohol free Swedish bitters. Ok, Let’s take this story calmly and make it clear!
WHAT IS A FERNET AND WHAT IS A SWEDISH BITTER? WHAT IS THE HISTORY?
Like all bitter and liqueurs, the story goes back to the beginning of time. The most famous of the Fernet, Fernet Branca, dates back to 1845. This bitter was created by Bernadino Branca in response to a cholera crisis in Milan.
If all these bitter are called Fernet it is because they all refer to a Dr. of the same name who may never have existed but who would have come from Sweden, and who would have lived more than 100 years thanks to this famous remedy. This Swedish origin is at the origin of the word Swedish bitters or Elixir du Suédois. These two beverages are very closely related, one being the ancestor of the other. The Swedish elixir is an ancient liqueur composed of about sixty plants very famous in the traditional pharmacopoeia. This blend of plants macerated in alcohol or wine therefore began its career as a medicine.
Why alcohol when alcohol is supposed to be a poison? Alcohol makes it possible to extract the active substances easily and efficiently, and ensures a good stabilisation of the preparation by stopping enzymatic and hydrolytic reactions, as well as microbial activities. It is also an excellent carrier of medicinal substances within the body, reinforcing their therapeutic effect.
Let’s get back to Dr. Fernet.
Fernet Branca is one of the versions of the different bitters that have existed coming from that original Elixir. Mentions of tonic was common in the medical literature throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. The doctor’s name was sometimes different (sometimes Hierner or Ivernex or Fernet -that remains in posterity in the 19th century) or sometimes not. The name of the remedies too depending who did it. Fernet Branca was named like this because it was made by a Mr. Branca who wanted to be associated with the mysterious Dr. In 1750 in Paris a Mr. Lelievre was very successful with a “Baume de Vie”. He even published a book with 300 pages complied all the letters by happy customers of the product.
There was really a famous doctor Kristian Henrik Hjärne who in 1739 praised the merits of the potion, but left no trace of a recipe.
WHAT IS IT MADE OF?
What has never changed over the past centuries are the main ingredients. The main items were aloe, gentian, saffron agaric and rhubarb. To allow the absorption of this bitter potion, we added what is called a theriacal mixture (Cape Aloe, aniseed, cinnamon, lemon, sweet fennel, gentian, ginger, red quinquina, licorice, saffron, valerian). In short, this elixir of Swedish or here his grandson Fernet is a mixture of mixtures given the quantity of ingredients.
In short the category of Fernet is a modern reinterpretation of the Elixir.
The Fernet Branca recipe is a careful recipe. There is no distillation. The carefully selected products are macerated in a wine distillate. There are less than for a Swedish elixir. Once assembled, the product rests in wooden casks for one year. The Fernet Branca was quickly copied, often badly, but there are some nice exceptions like the Fernet del Frate Angelico de Tempus Fugit.
It is a niche product. Just like the Swedish elixir, its ancestor, which has not disappeared. We have already talked in a previous post about the attempts to revive Elixir.