Alicia Fuhrman’s Local Libations: Bring the heat

  • Mixologist Victoria Torti, the bar manager at 30Boltwood in Amherst, makes a “Nail an Italian” Cocktail. Gazette staff/Jerrey Roberts

  • A Nail an Italian Cocktail at 30Boltwood in Amherst Gazette staff/Jerrey Roberts

  • Ingredients for a Nail an Italian Cocktail at 30Boltwood in Amherst

Published: 11/3/2016 3:04:32 PM

Editor’s note: Recipe has been corrected.

You might not have heard of Fernet-Branca. But even if you have, you can’t know much — this Italian liqueur is a 27-ingredient mash-up of roots, herbs and plants uniquely steeped, brewed, aged and kept confidential since 1845.

The taste is at once minty and spiced, bitter and refreshing; tannic like a black tea or red wine, and lasts in your mouth like good chocolate … and otherwise has nothing in common with chocolate.

This stuff is a concentrate, historically medicinal — in Italian, an amaro, or bitter digestif — and an undiluted mouthful will make you shudder. Still, it’s an almost impossibly complex sip from a singular spirit, and that enigma has become something of an industry obsession.

On bar menus you’ll see it in the most experimental cocktails. After hours, you’ll find bartenders taking shots for a kind of self-sacrificial second wind — that’s where I came to know it. And trust me when I say Fernet grows on you.

What I love, though, is less about cracking the secret flavor profile (a few ingredients have been confirmed: aloe, chamomile, rhubarb, saffron) and more about the pursuit of a simple solution. Because how much more can a Fernet cocktail really take? I don’t see an answer in smoke and gunpowder, although such a drink famously exists.

I want something like elegance. And over time I’ve found one solution, maybe: heat. Fernet mixes into hot liquid remarkably well. Different herb and flavor notes rise up as the drink steams, cools. You get a varied taste experience that seems right at the essence of the liqueur.

Coffee and Fernet, for example: a dark roast (cream optional, for more texture and sweetness) will become infused with a sort of licorice root flavor, lightly sweet, and mellow into a grassier finish.

In the chill of November, that’s what I’m craving. But around our quiet valley, Fernet is hard to find. I got lucky at 30Boltwood in Amherst, companion restaurant to the Lord Jeffery Inn, and with a reputation for a local-centric, dynamic bar program. They feature a cocktail that puts Fernet, scotch and whiskey over a hot toddy base — a riff on the classic Rusty Nail, with a few herb and citrus additions. And that heat. (So named, by the way, “Nail an Italian”).

I can’t fit here every detail of the two-hour conversation I had with bar manager and mind behind the recipe Victoria Torti — how the honeyed single malt has more spice, aged wood to it than sticky sweetness; how Japanese whiskey has a cleaner mouthfeel and lightness that cuts some harsh notes in the Fernet; how balance here is all in a ratio that can hold up over minutes or longer (the challenge of heat, again, is that it makes such an astatic drink); or how the garnishes (lemon rind and a sprig of thyme), too, steep as the drink sits — I’ll simply say, it’s as singular and addictive as its inspiration. Go try one.

I’ve put together a simplified recipe below, a sort of Fernet Hot Toddy, but perhaps the takeaway is this: however you choose to acquaint yourself with Fernet-Branca, pick a cold day, a snow (or ice) day, and have it hot.

Alicia Fuhrman is a writer and bartender, born on the West Coast and raised on the East, living and working in Northampton, for now.

How to make a Fernet Hot Toddy

Serves 1

¾ ounce Fernet-Branca

¾ ounce Drambuie (half a shot)

¾ ounce whiskey (can’t go wrong with Jameson Original)

1/3 cup hot water (adjust at will to dictate drink strength)

1 slice lemon

3 cloves

1 tablespoon honey (optional)

Combine Fernet-Branca, Drambuie and whiskey in a mug. Heat water separately, and steep cloves and lemon in it for a minute or two, before combining with the rest. Honey can be stirred in for more sweetness.

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