July 18, 2009

I have found a new spirit!

I've been looking for Fernet Branca for a while now, as it's a rather esoteric italian amaro, or bitter liqueur. It's intended as a digestif, and has a ton of secret ingredients, which, according to the website, include chamomile, wild aloe, bitter orange, myrrh, iris, gentian, European lime-tree, cinnamon, galangal, and saffron. The most dominant taste, however, is menthol, but it's sort of a sweet-bitter thing going on overall. Well, after hearing about it from all sorts of cocktail bloggers, most notably Rick over at Kaiser Penguin, who positively loves the stuff, I decided a few weeks back that if I could find it, I'd buy it.

Well, I found it. And I made a very old drink with it. It was created at the American Bar at the Savoy Hotel in London by the first bartender of renown at the Savoy, and indeed, one of the first female bartenders of renown anywhere, Ada Coleman. It was made for Sir Charles Hawtrey, Noel Coward's mentor, who took a sip and exclaimed, "By Jove! That is the real hanky-panky!" And thus the Hanky Panky was born. Now, let it be said that at that time in England, hanky-panky did not mean sexual tomfoolery. No, it was used to connote black magic, sleight of hand, legerdemain...that sort of thing. So the black magic comes in the combining of three unlikely ingredients into one delightful beverage.
Hanky Panky

1 3/4 oz gin
3/4 oz sweet vermouth
2 dashes (I used just under 1/2 tsp) Fernet Branca

Stir all with ice, strain into a chilled glass, and squeeze a small bit of orange zest over the drink.
It really makes for a most unusual cocktail, but a good one. I can see how Sir Charles deemed it black magic. The orange really makes it, somehow tempering the strange, herbal character of the Fernet, and blending it with the gin and vermouth. I don't know where that pixie came from, but I like her pixie drink!

Addendum: For what it's worth, here's a fun little article from Wayne Curtis (author of "And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails") that he wrote for the Atlantic about Fernet Branca. I am now sipping it straight, and it's everything he says it is. I find myself growing to like it, though! The Bitter Beginning, from the November 1998 issue of "The Atlantic."

Hanky Panky


  1. Loved the link to the article. Was showing my wife, who when seeing the label said, "Oh, yeah, Fernet!" Turns out, her earliest memories of sneaking sips of alcoholic beverages as a kid was her father's poolside concoction of sweet vermouth and Fernet over ice. Yes, her father is Italian. She couldn't describe the flavor either, but has quite a fond memory of it.

  2. It really does grow on you! And, of course, there's the reputed medical benefit, which one must not overlook...it's nice to have booze that does good things for your health!