Bitters have long been a popular choice in Europe for drinking, but in the United States the botanicals have been slower to catch on with consumers. But thanks to the popularity of bitter liqueurs such as Campari and along with the resurgence of the Aperol spritz, that’s changing. The next bitters on the horizon? The dark and herbaceous Fernet-Branca, an Italian amaro made with a blend of 27 herbs and spices.
Created in Milan in 1845, Fernet-Branca, like many liqueurs, started out as medicine. Its herbal properties were marketed to help soothe cholera symptoms. In the years following, with its now-iconic Art Deco design of the brand’s advertisements, the product caught on; Italians began sipping it after meals. Today you can find hundreds of reproductions of those advertisements online, and well, plenty of people are still drinking the intoxicating beverage.
The secret recipe and business have both been held by the same family for nearly 175 years. That includes Edoardo Branca, the great-great-grandson of founder Bernadino Branca. Edoardo Branca has watched Fernet-Branca go from being a strictly Italian aperitif to an international sensation in the bartending industry, with places like San Francisco and Buenos Aires consuming some of the largest volumes of the beverage in the world. It’s currently growing three times as fast as the liqueur and cordial category rate, according to Nielsen data in August 2019, and gaining in popularity as a post-meal companion for many in the culinary field. It has all led Branca to spearhead a stateside office based in New York City to continue to expand the brand’s presence in the growing market.
Fortune recently spoke with Edoardo Branca about all things Fernet, including trying to crack the recipe.
Fortune: We’re just going to come out and ask: What goes into the secret recipe?
Branca: That I cannot say—it’s a secret! But I can say that it comprises 27 herbs and spices from four different continents: aloe comes from South Africa, rhubarb from China, gentian from France, galingale from India or Sri Lanka, chamomile from Italy or Argentina, just to name a few. On top of that there are flowers, herbs, roots, and plants used for alcoholic brews, extracts, and teas that [when] blended in a special mixture produce the digestif properties of the product. This herbal mixture is aged for at least one year in oak barrels, becoming Fernet-Branca.
What are some popular uses for Fernet?
Fernet-Branca is traditionally thought of as an after-dinner drink, but we encourage people to understand that it is an incredibly versatile drink to be enjoyed in a variety of ways. Some like to drink it on its own, in the most direct way, and others prefer it in a mix with cola, ginger ale, or a bitter soda drink like chinotto. Fernet-Branca is a protagonist of mixed drinks, offering a unique complexity that other ingredients cannot.
How has the American consumer come around to Fernet?
We see the most support for Fernet-Branca from bartenders and the hospitality industry, who are very influential as gatekeepers, helping get the word out with more consumers.
This year, we saw so much support from the American consumer by bringing our beautiful custom pop-up called Branca Bar to some of the country’s top food, music, and cultural events. At Branca Bar, we offered mini-cocktails for $1, or complimentary in states that would allow, so that a broad audience of consumers could experience Fernet-Branca themselves in easily replicable cocktails.
Why do you think Americans have so quickly gravitated to the beverage in recent years?
American palates are changing to become more and more inclined toward bitter flavors, which has historically been the biggest hurdle in introducing it to new people. Fernet-Branca is definitely an acquired taste, but we see more and more people who are willing to try it with an open mind every day. Fernet-Branca is unlike anything else on earth for the support of the fans. Once you love Fernet-Branca and appreciate it for what it is, it becomes a part of you. There are more people with giant Fernet-Branca tattoos than you would believe. Some of my favorites are a chest-size Fernet-Branca eagle logo, a full forearm with Fernando the Fernet-Branca Crocodile, and a bartender with “Fernet” and “Branca” on each thigh in our block letter logo.
The popularity of Fernet-Branca has absolutely exploded in San Francisco. Can you tell us about its rise in consumption there?
We consider San Francisco to be Fernet-Branca’s stateside capital, as it consumes a considerable amount more than any other state. Fernet-Branca arrived in San Francisco in the 1900s, but it wasn’t until the 1990s when Fernet-Branca sponsored Pride celebrations that it began making major waves. The [LGBTQ] community never forgot this support. Fernet-Branca’s popularity began to grow and grow, eventually finding our niche among bartenders.
How has all of this inspired you to open an American office to further education and expansion here?
Fernet-Branca has a long history with New York City. In fact, there was a full distillery in Tribeca, which we closed in 2002. We then began importing through a company in Orange County, which was a great partnership while it lasted. But we knew that in order to take Fernet-Branca to the next level, we would need to be where the people are, where culture thrives to inspire and the trends are born: New York City. In early 2019 we established Branca USA and moved into our headquarters in the historic GE Art Deco Building in Manhattan, and I moved here from Milan.
With our recent establishment of Branca USA, we are working toward expanding awareness outside of niche markets and toward the everyday consumer. We think it will continue to be successful, as the American consumer is drawn to things with a unique story and authentic history.
This year will be the 175th anniversary of Fernet-Branca, and we felt there was no better way to celebrate than by establishing our roots here in order to welcome as many new consumers as possible to our family. Three sips of Fernet-Branca and you’re family. Saluti!