When it comes to amaro, Fernet Branca often receives a disproportionate amount of attention and affection. One of the major reasons for this is that Fernet Branca has become a major drink of choice behind the bar in many of the key influential bars around the world. Since imbibers are often curious about what bartenders drink (thinking they must know something everyone else doesn’t), Fernet Branca has grow from being a liquid equivalent to a bartender’s secret handshake to a buzzworthy amaro consumed by the masses. Fernet Branca is one of the more assertive amari. Bottled at 80 proof (40% AVB), Fernet Branca is higher in alcohol, decidedly more bitter, and packs more of a punch. To the uninitated, the first sip of Fernet Branca can be startlingly strong with its blast of mint, pine, and striking bitterness – it’s been likened to what Aqua Velva would be if it were a mouthwash.
But an amaro like Fernet Branca doesn’t have to be a “bravado shot”, and for most, starting your Fernet journey with Fernet Branca is a mistake. Fernet Branca Menta (also known as Branca Menta) was created in the 1960s, inspired by a famous opera singer Maria Callas. The singer was known to drink Fernet Branca along with a touch of mint syrup before each performance. This preparation of Fernet Branca wasn’t uncommon as it was known to be served as a frappe (over crushed ice) with mint syrup, especially in the summer. The Fratelli Branca Distillerie recognized the popularity of this preparation and so they created Fernet Branca with mint, a spirit based on Fernet Branca but with more mint, less alcohol, and more sugar. The initial Fernet with mint was colored green (the actual mint oil added was clear). Fernet with mint ultimately morphed into Fernet Menta when the colorings were dropped and then ultimately to Branca Menta.
Fernet Branca Menta (60 Proof / 30% ABV) is based on the same recipe as Fernet Branca including an assortment of 40 herbs, roots, and spices. While the exact recipe is a secret, we do know that Fernet-Branca contains aloe, gentian, chamomile, angelica, chincona, colombo root, chinese rhubarb, myrrh, peppermint, saffron, and iris. Branca Menta adds to the equation more sugar and peppermint oil (Piedmontese peppermint). Side by side Fernet Branca and Fernet Branca Menta smell quite different. The lead note on the nose for Branca Menta is sweet mint, while Fernet Branca leads with bitter aloe. Underneath the mint in the Branca Menta are all the wonderfully bitter herbs that make Fernet what it is, but the sweet mint is so strong that they exist more as suggestions than anything else. The nose is considerably less complex on the Branca Menta than Fernet Branca, but it’s also considerably more inviting. The entry for Branca Menta is also considerably more inviting. Sweet mint jumps onto the palate from the get go, and feels like a liqueur on the palate with a thick and heavy mouthfeel. The thick layer of sweet mint does open slightly to allow some of the slightly bitter fernet elements to emerge in the midpalate, including the bitter aloe, chinese rhubarb, and saffron. Branca Menta’s bitter qualities really peak towards the end of the palate, but it’s also the point where the mint gets most intense. The sweet mint wins the battle here and dominates the finish with strong mint lingering for an extremely long time. The bitter is still there, but it’s ethereal, and there’s something really nice about the ethereal bitter quality.
Branca Menta may be too sweet for some, but it’s also light years ahead of Fernet Branca in approachability. Mint is a key element in making Fernet Branca both popular and palatable, and with Branca Menta it’s the mint that’s been brought forward to lead the pack. Since the mouthfeel for Branca Menta is a little heavy, it benefits from ice and does exceptionally well over crushed ice in a frappe. Fernet Branca is often consumed as a shot which helps speed through the stronger, bitter elements of its midpalate to get to its more balanced and minty finish. Branca Menta lends itself much more to sipping and its ethereal bitter quality can really be explored and savored as it’s sipped. While we absolutely adore Fernet Branca, it’s really not for everyone. Branca Menta, however, is an amaro that could have an extremely wide appeal. Mint is a popular flavor and Branca Menta does a superb job presenting strong mint balanced out with a nice bitter undertone. Bartenders often overlook Fernet Branca’s kindler, gentler relative, but that’s really a mistake. Branca Menta is a much better introduction into the world of Fernet for the uninitiated and over crushed ice (with a mint sprig garnish) is one of the easiest and most pleasing amaro preparations we’ve had. Branca Menta can also be mixed with Fernet Branca 1:1 to create an amazing middle ground that is both wonderfully bitter but much more balanced and minty. It’s simply superb.
Be sure to also read The Fuss About Fernet Branca.