Monday, June 22, 2009

The Toronto Cocktail: A Different Take on San Francisco's Favorite Bitter Liqueur

Loved by some and despised by many, Fernet Branca is of one Italy's most potent herbal bitters. Originally formulated in 1845 by Bernardino Branca, Fernet is based on a closely guarded family recipe which includes saffron, gentian root (as in Angostura bitters), aloe, myrrh, rhubarb, and red cinchona bark mixed with a brandy based spirit. It has a pungent aroma and taste, which some describe as similar to Jagermeister without the sugar. At 40% alcohol, Fernet is considerably stronger than other Italian bitters including Campari and Cynar, which are both around 20% alcohol.

San Francisco has the distinction of being the City in the U.S. with the most drinkers who happen to love the product. San Francisco's love affair with the liqueur extends back to before Prohibition, and has only increased since. According to the Fratelli Branca company, which manufactures the liqueur, San Francisco consumes over 1300 cases per month, which equates to about 90% of U.S. consumption. For those familiar with the SF bar scene, it's not uncommon to see people drink shots of Fernet, often with a ginger ale chaser.

While many enjoy the taste bud blasting shot approach, there are several, arguably more pleasurable, ways to drink Fernet. One of these is in the Toronto Cocktail, which your host previously mentioned briefly in the post from May 26th, and is worth discussing again in more detail. This cocktail is a whiskey based cocktail that's a great alternative to a more traditional Manhattan or Sazerac.

The Toronto Cocktail is typically rye whiskey mixed with Fernet, sugar, and another bitter such as Angostura. A robust rye whiskey, such as Rittenhouse or Sazerac, is important in this drink since the whiskey needs to stand up to the assertive flavors of Fernet. Using a weaker whiskey like a Canadian or a wheated bourbon (i.e. Maker's Mark) will cause the drink to be unbalanced. If no rye whiskey is available, use a bourbon with a high amount of rye like Bulleit or Four Roses, which are both common at most higher end bars. As is the case with most whiskey drinks, it's important to stir this cocktail (vs. shake) to avoid excessive dilution from melting ice.

For a town where Fernet is so well known, there are surprisingly few bartenders that are familiar with this drink. Feel free to share the below recipe and perhaps you'll make a new friend.


Toronto Cocktail
2 ounces rye whiskey (100 proof or greater is best)
1/4 ounce Fernet
1/4 ounce simple syrup or other sweetener
2 dashes Angostura Bitters (or other high quality aromatic bitters)

Stir with ice and strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with a flamed orange peel, or orange twist. Use more or less sweetener to taste.

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