Apparently, Fernet-Branca, the only myrrh-flavored drink I know that’s popular in Italy and Argentina, is also very big seller in San Francisco these days, and has been creeping around the US from there.
Like a lot of other mysterious concoctions (Chartreuse, Jagermeister), Fernet-Branca is a blend of secret herbs and spices with enough alcohol to potionize the ingredients and kill any germs that might be in your body. A sort of medicinal home remedy supposed to be good for your digestion and able to cure most of what might ail you, but not designed to taste like anything but palatable herbal medicine. Possibly this is why it was never banned in the US despite Prohibition, and despite being over 40% alcohol.
Chartreuse tastes like incredibly high-class and delicious cough medicine. Fernet-Branca, according to an old San Francisco Chronicle article, tastes like drinking cough medicine and then getting punched in the nose. But people agree that it wakes one up and stops pain and bloating from overeating.
Some say its original purpose was a home remedy for cramps at that time of the month; and it would probably work for that, especially if you drink a lot of it.
The modern solution to this is to drink medicinal liqueurs as shots (thus not to taste them), or to mix them with other stuff and then throw them down as shots (still not tasting them). But this is silly. Either acquire the taste, or don’t order it. (“I love Jagermeister” and “I wouldn’t let Jagermeister ever touch my tongue” are not compatible statements.)
Taking an exactly contrary position, the Fernet-Branca company website recommends that one take three sips in a row, holding each one in the mouth for several seconds, in order to experience the full herb flavor of this stuff, right down to “Myrrh is mine; its bitter perfume”. They have recipes on the website to cook with it. They say it goes good with coconut milk.
Anyway, the descriptions I’ve found agree that Fernet-Branca has a strong mint/menthol taste, a strong licorice/fennel taste, and a whole bunch of bitter herb and alcohol. Known ingredients: saffron (of which the company is the major world buyer), aloe, myrrh, gentian root, orris (iris) root, cinchona bark (against malaria), and zedoary. (Yup, A to Z.) The Fernet-Branca website admits further to cinnamon, galangal (blue ginger), bay leaves, linden (European lime-tree), gentian root, rhubarb root, chamomile, colombo, and bitter orange. Some say there are 27 and others say forty ingredients, which are known to include fungi as well as roots, leaves, spices, and bark. Some think wormwood is one of them; but it sounds like gentian is bitter enough to account for the bitter side of the taste.
Anyway, the stuff’s got myrrh in it, so that means you should drink it on Epiphany, right? But I guess I’d better not, ’cause me and linden don’t exactly get along, and neither do several of the other ingredients. (The dark side of secret herbs and spices.) But it sounds like good stuff for everybody else, though obviously it would help to be somebody who likes the flavor of black licorice and doesn’t hate bitter tastes. At the very least, you can brighten a bartender’s day by getting down one of those dusty bottles.
It’s a pretty interesting corporate website. The “Fernet-Branca: The Story” section includes a sort of advertising archive that goes back to the late 1800’s. If you like art deco and art nouveau posters, it’s your kind of website.
People seem pretty divided about this one. Here’s a description from a first-time taster who drank it neat: “I rather like the ‘grown up’ taste. Maybe not cigarette ashes, but certainly the kind of taste favored by the coffee, cigarette and steak crowd.” Other favorable opinions: “It’s sure not a chocolate milkshake, but it has its own appeal. I like the scent of it also, and the thought of all those herbs, nuts etc. that went into making it.” Then there’s this full-length article by an Argentinean on the glories of Fernet con cola, and another on The Miracle, which combines Fernet and creme de menthe.
Other descriptions of the taste from first-time tasters: “somewhere between pine-scented Lysol and baking soda toothpaste, with hints of anise, molasses, and ashtray” and “a cross between medicine, crushed plants, and bitter mud.” The latter is softened with “when diluted substantially with Coca-Cola it is really quite enjoyable, the coke somehow softening the bitter, mud-like flavors I’d found so horrific when taken neat.” However, there’s people out there who don’t even like the taste of Chartreuse, so it’s one of those things. Often people’s tastes broaden as they grow older, so don’t say any definitive no.