This month's Remix was inspired by a friend's dilemma – a dilemma shared, I suspect, by many. As our friend offered us pre-dinner drinks, he waved to his bar and admitted that he had no idea what to do with the bottle of Fernet-Branca that had been sitting there for months. He'd bought it after hearing its praises sung, opened it, and after the first taste, never went back. "How do people drink that stuff?" he asked plaintively.
Fernet-Branca has enjoyed a surge of trendiness in recent years, it's true, but the bitter Italian amaro takes some getting used to, even for those who like other amari. It's mostly been the pet stunt liquor of hospitality-industry employees, who luge it off marrow bones or mix it with Coke, and of mixologists, who blend it creatively into cocktails for the paying customers (but often join the kitchen staff after hours in the shooting-it-straight brinkmanship).
I love bitter flavors, but even I would hesitate to drink more than a stomach-settling sip of straight Fernet-Branca. However, I admire its adaptability. The secret mix of dozens of herbs, spices and fruits facilitates a constant search to find other flavors that will boost and amplify the ones you like. I don't care so much for Fernet-Branca's menthol whiff, but I can get behind the cardamom and rhubarb.
Despite Fernet-Branca's very recent popularity, it has been around since the mid-19th century, and there are even a couple of classic cocktail recipes that use it. I may take a pass at the Toronto cocktail another time, but this month I'll Remix the Hanky Panky, in honor of my (gin-loving) friend. The Hanky Panky, a sort of Martinez-plus-Fernet, originated at the American Bar in London's Savoy Hotel in the first years of the 20th century. And here's a first in all my Remix research: The bartender who created it was a woman, Ada Coleman. She predates Harry Craddock, who succeeded her behind the stick at the American Bar and wrote The Savoy Cocktail Book, in which so many classic cocktail recipes are collected – including this one.
In this Remix, I bumped up the Fernet-Branca significantly; the original calls for just a couple of dashes. (I'd suggest trying the original with about twice as much Fernet; it works.) But I paired it with an equal amount of Hum, a hibiscus-and-cardamom liqueur, which brought out all the Fernet's spiciness and damped down some of the more toothpaste-y aromas, and also bridged the gap between the amaro and the red vermouth. The orange peel serves as more than just a garnish, too. Be sure to use a generous swath of peel and give it a good twist so as to mist the drink's surface with the aromatic citrus oils. And be sure to use a dry, juniper-forward gin; softer floral gins won't stand up to this stuff.1.5 ounces dry gin
1.5 ounces sweet vermouth
2 dashes Fernet-Branca
Combine all in a mixing glass with ice and stir well. Strain into a coupe. Garnish with orange peel.
2 ounces dry gin
1.5 ounces sweet vermouth
1 teaspoon Fernet-Branca
1 teaspoon Hum liqueur
Combine all in a mixing glass with ice and stir well. Strain into a rocks glass over a large piece of ice. Twist an orange peel over the glass, then use as garnish.
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