Yesterday, asking “Want a fernet?” to a lover of that style of pungent Italian amaro meant they might salivate like a Pavlovian dog. But today, the same question might be answered with another question: “Which one?” Until recently, there has only been one major brand of fernet offered coast to coast in the U.S., and that is Fernet Branca. But last month, competition stiffened when Fernet Vittone (“vitt-OHH-nay”) hit shelves, challenging Branca devotees to rethink their allegiances.
For those not familiar, fernet is a bitter digestivo created in Italy, and is most often enjoyed either as a chilled shot, mixed with Coca-Cola (hugely popular in Argentina) or in a cocktail or espresso. And it is as adored by some as it is reviled by others. Why the polarized response? Well, for starters it’s an off-putting greenish-brown color—and that’s just the first hurdle. The full-body experience continues with an aggressively herbaceous nose and culminates in a love-it-or-hate-it bittersweet punch to the palate. But drinking fernet, at least among beverage industry professionals, is a touch less about the flavor than it is about camaraderie, another shared spirituous ritual like the Champagne toast or pouring sake for a companion.
Sure, there are other options. Herbs & Rye on West Sahara Avenue offers six fernets from which to choose: Vallet from Mexico by way of France; Italy’s Luxardo and Lazzaroni; and Czech R. Jelínek sit alongside Branca and now Vittone. Denver’s Leopold Bros. also makes a domestic offering. But, like many, my gateway was Branca. I’m nowhere near as committed as the Branca-tattooed fanatics out there, but I’ll admit that I’m a big fan, and have even made a pilgrimage to the brand’s second distillery, in Argentina, to watch ingredients being macerated and rested in wooden vats tall as a house. So I, too, am challenged by the sudden appearance of Vittone.
Not long after I was introduced to the liquor category, I started a campaign to call for our Branca by its brand name. “You’ll get into a sticky situation,” I warned. “Another brand will enter the scene and then ordering ‘a fernet’ will be like walking up to bar and ordering ‘rum’!” Sure enough, June 15, Fernet Vittone hit Vegas like a meteorite, along with its minty sister, menta (a mintier amaro), sending ripples through the community. So I asked bartenders which they prefer. Results have been mixed.
Some find Vittone less sweet, with a spicier profile—appealing. Others think Vittone lacks Branca’s bite and body—less appealing. And many prefer Vittone Menta to Branca Menta. But one thing’s for certain: While Branca devotees have to digest that Vittone (founded in 1842) predates Branca by three years, the story that Bernardino Branca learned his trade by working for Domenico Vittone? Without proof, they’re not swallowing it.