When the call is raised at whatever watering hole you happen to find yourself at the time, you’re liable to see a mix of reactions from those being propositioned. Some will shrug and cock their heads noncommittally as if to say, “why not, it’s Wednesday?” Others, offended by the very mention of the spirit’s name, will scrunch their face in disgust, their impression inevitably tainted either by an instance of overindulgence or simply the result of an overly sensitive palate. But watch closely and you’re guaranteed to spy at least a few adventurous thrillseekers among them whose eyes literally light up at the prospect of downing a quaff of this singular, bittersweet, herbal elixir.
David Cohen is proud to count himself among the latter. Dubbed “the bartender’s handshake” for its proliferance within the service industry, fernet has been having a moment ever since it became popular among bartenders in need of a mid-shift pick-me-up. “You get a little jolt from the bitterness and the sugar,” says the owner of Jacksonville’s Manifest Distilling. The company recently released its own version of this unique spirit. “It kicks you in the a** a little bit.”
In the taxonomy of adult beverages, fernet is an amaro, a bitter herbal liqueur. Also classified as a digestivo for the tradition of consuming it after a meal, it is purported to aid in digestion. What distinguishes it from other amari is its unique blend of herbs including – but not limited to – myrrh, cardamom, rhubarb, chamomile and mint.
For Cohen, the impetus for the project came from his appreciation of amaros and his desire to deconstruct and recreate the things he enjoys. “I’ve always really enjoyed the digestivo category, so it was really interesting for me to try and figure out what goes into making it and how it’s produced,” he explains.
In Italy, the beverage evolved as a way to make good use of an abundant resource – wine. Sub-par wine that might otherwise go to waste would be distilled to create a base spirit. A laundry list of herbs were then added to macerate before being sweetened followed by a series of decantings and filtrations. In some cases the liqueur would be aged in barrels or other vessels. With many variables and unknowns to consider, Cohen and his team set out to recreate this unique spirit and adapt it to their own personal tastes.
To help develop the botanical recipe for their version, the Manifest team benefited from the expertise of Michael Buffa, who works in partnership with the distillery to produce his Buffa Bittering Company line of bitters out of their facility. After tasting 15 or so different versions of the liqueur, Cohen decided he wanted to create something with a higher proof that could stand up in a cocktail while toning down the minty character in favor of something more floral and earthy.
The result was Fernet Manifesto which was released in early May, joining the distillery’s lineup of limited run experimental spirits sold in half-sized 375ml bottles. In addition to the fernet, they’ve bottled a 100 percent Meyer lemon vodka made from local lemons, a malt whiskey distilled from a mix of Intuition Jon Boat and Underdark stout, and a Kaffir lime and ginger vodka made with limes from Berry Good Farms. Next up is a strawberry amaro using Plant City strawberries.
As for Cohen’s prescribed way of consuming the liqueur? “I’m a big proponent of drink it how you like it,” he admits. “If you want to shoot it, shoot it. If you want to sip, it sip it.” He likes it both ways but confesses that one of his favorite preparations is to mix it in a glass of Mexican Coke over ice for what he calls an “Argentinian Lunch Break.”
Because the liqueur is available only in the Manifest Tasting Room, you won’t be able to order it at the bar. You can, however, pick up a bottle to try at home in the following cocktail from South Kitchen & Spirits’ Grey Miller provided you can convince him to give up the secret to his turmeric-vanilla syrup recipe. But even if you find that task too daunting, thankfully the spirit is just fine by itself.
“Ferneting About Life”
By | Grey Miller of South Kitchen & Spirits
1.5 oz. Fernet Manifesto
1 oz. pineapple juice
¾ oz. turmeric-vanilla syrup
½ oz. banana liqueur
½ oz. lime juice
Combine ingredients in a cocktail shaker with ice and shake until frothy. Serve over more ice.