Stop! Do NOT Drink This!

When you go to the post office, you see posters of people who did bad things. When you look closely at their faces, one thought in particular should come to you: stay away from them. If and when you should see the bottle on the right, you should do the same thing. Stay away. Do NOT buy a bottle of Fernet Branca. If someone, even a close friend, offers you a glass at a party, do NOT drink it.

If you must know, it’s Italian, and it has a relatively respectable history. Some drink it before a meal, some after. It is considered an amaro, also known as bitters, like Campari and Cynar. It’s over 150 years old, and like many other pedigreed beverages like Grand Marnier and Coca-Cola, was born in a laboratory. Some of the mad scientists were like John Pemberton, a 19th Century pharmacist in Georgia, who developed the early version of what became Coke. The corporate history of formulas, owners and names for Coca-Cola is so convoluted you’d think that huge quantities of cocaine were involved.

Fernet was the brainchild of Bernardino Branca, a spice trader looking for new products to drive his business in spices. (“It’s a floor wax AND a dessert topping!”) You should visit the company’s official website, which is wildly creative and entertaining. This still does not mean, however, that you should drink any.

There’s even a very funny book about it. But make no mistake: one mouthful and you will wish you were dead.

What does it taste like? Sort of like aged Armenian shellac, with a big splash of shoe polish and a dash of asphalt. Sound good? Boy do you need help.

Why am I talking about it? Because last night I finished off a bottle, a bottle we’ve had for years, so I felt like sharing the experience. Every few months I’d pour myself a wee dram, hoping that it would be better than the last time I tried it.

You know how this is, some foods we detest as kids we like as adults. I could never stand spinach, which either came out of a Popeye-style can or was frozen. Either way it was overcooked, wet and sloppy and a complete failure as a food product. Years later, when working in good restaurants, I discovered how wonderful fresh spinach could be, say, in salads, or even if cooked very slightly and thrown on top of pasta. Another one was Brussells sprouts, which are forced on children everywhere. Most kids think that they should be used as ammunition for large bore assault rifles. They too are now one of my favorites, when steamed with a bit of butter and sesame oil.

Fernet Branca, on the other hand, never got any better. Never. Last night I sipped on the last shot glass full of it while cooking, and it was awful. Why did I drink it? Heck if I know, but it reminded me of a story I read many years ago in the Wall Street Journal.

On an island in the South Pacific, the people produced a fermented beverage from gourds. Evidently it was awful. A masculine culture, the men would sit around a fire and eat, sometimes a barbecued horse. (That’s what it said in the WSJ article.) Then, the men would pass around this fermented drink, getting drunk and telling stories, and they would make jokes about how bad it tasted.

While they kept drinking it. I will never forget that.

So when I was forcing down this gawd-awful Fernet Branca, with its long-lasting, lingering, gawd-awful taste, I was really communing with my people, sitting with the guys around a roaring fire on the beach, chewing on a barbecued horse haunch, and laughing.

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