Fernet: The Story of a Myth | The Origins
Fernet is a dark colored liquor, with an alcohol content ranging between 40 to 45%, produced by macerating a mixture of herbs and spices. For all intents and purposes, we can consider it an amaro, and its history is bound to the pharmacist-distillers of the 19th century who were the real heirs of Medieval alchemists.
To better understand the origin of Fernet, we must begin with the notion of «elixir», the true predecessors of the contemporary art of liquor making. The tradition of “amaro making” is strongly connected to the art of distillation, a craft that has a long history in Italy and is tightly bound to ancient pharmacology.
A «REMEDY» FOR CHOLERA
As we have mentioned in our entry dedicated to Alchemists, monks, pharmacists and apothecaries worked a lot with alcohol. They studied it for its extractive properties, distilled it with artisanal stills and infused it with every type of plant and spice, especially medicinal herbs.
Amari were first conceived as medicines and distilled alcohol was used to capture the healing (and spiritual) essence of plants. They were utilized as prescription drugs at least until the 19th century. It is no coincidence that the first liquor advertisements boasted their miraculous properties: their goal was to demonstrate a direct correlation between taste and well-being.
To cite a specific example, one of the first printed Fernet ads (dated 1908), credits the amaro with curative properties for the digestive system, recommending its purchase from «leading pharmacies».
The belief that «elixirs» were similar to medicines must have been so ingrained that in 1877, in the midst of a serious cholera epidemic, producers were not fazed in defining it as an effective «anti-cholera» medication to be mixed with water in order to purify it: «Fernet», as stated on the ad, «quenches thirst, facilitates digestion, stimulates appetite, heals intermittent fevers, headaches, dizziness, soothes the nerves, liver pain, spleen, seasickness and nausea. It is a vermicide and an anti-cholera medication».
Authoritative doctors had to interfere to debunk this myth. Costantino Gorini, professor of medicine at the University of Padua, wrote: «Fernet, Ferro-china and Wermouth must (always, I repeat) be dismissed as therapeutic remedies mixed with suspicious water».
FROM PILL TO PLEASURE
Today, we know that amari (like all distillates) do not have proven therapeutic effectiveness, despite having the ability to strengthen the medicinal properties of some substances contained in herbs. Even the belief that amari are good for the stomach and favor digestion is partly fruit of the myth: in fact, elevated sugar content could hold down digestion, even prolonging it.
There are amari containing extracts that can give our bodies a boost and, if consumed in small quantities, may provide strength and relief. The fact is that, during the 20th century, Fernet (and alcoholic beverages in general) gradually lost its “healing aura” and gained notoriety as an invigorating and – even more – hedonistic drink. In other words, a liquor that is consumed for pure pleasure, without any health benefits.
THE MYSTERIOUS ORIGINS OF FERNET
So, who invented Fernet? Why is it called that way? What is the reason behind its success?
According to legend, the formula of the first Fernet was perfected in 1845 by Bernardino Branca, an Italian-Swiss native from Milan. A self-taught pharmacist, Branca says that the recipe was a gift from a Swedish doctor named Dr. Fernet, a volunteer in Italy during the First Italian War of Independence against the Austrians. In 1848, following the Battle of Novara (where Piedmontese forces were severely defeated by Marshal Radetzky), Fernet found refuge with the Branca family and decided to repay them with the recipe of his elixir.
According to other –unproven – sources, Dr. Fernet (or Vernet) had apparently found the «recipe for longevity», which is the formula of his amaro: his father lived until 110 years of age, while his mother lived until 107; Dr. Fernet did not die of old age but after falling from his horse at the venerable age of 104.
There is one last story to tell, which narrates how the word Fernet actually comes from the Lombard dialect. Fer net means «clean iron», a reference to the red-hot iron rod that was immersed in the infusion to make it shiny and brilliant.
It doesn’t matter whether it was created by Dr. Fernet or the fruit of traditional Italian liquor making (which reached its grandeur in the 19th century): Fernet, just like Vermouth, became a symbolic Italian drink. While the latter is a consolidated aperitif, Fernet found its niche among “digestifs”, becoming – thanks to marketing, and the product’s originality – the most consumed after-meal amaro in the world.