May 20, 2011

Fratelli Branca Distillery Tour, Part 1

Back in April (when still living in Italy), wife Nat and I took the road north from our Italian pre-tirement home, driving up to Milan so we could make a visit to the Fratelli Branca Distillerie, where Fernet Branca and many other delicious drinkables are made. When we showed up in the morning for our tour, we weren’t sure at all what to expect—a little talking, a little walking around the building, we just didn’t know. But it ended up being an amazing day, where we learned a ton and had some fun (huge props to Laura Baddish for helping to set it up, too). Once past the guards (serious liqueurs always need guards at the gates, cause secret formulas are too tempting to weaker minded individuals), we were met by three swell Italian folks: Elisa, Marco, and Valeria. Marco gave most of the tour, with tons of expert translating (his English is better than our Italian, but not by enough to carry on in-depth conversations) and more touring by Elisa, with Valeria filling in the cracks.


The tour started in the Collezione Branca, which is a museum created by the Branca family, a museum in the distillery (the aromas of Fernet Branca and other drinks waft up as you wander the museum), collecting Branca historical items, memorabilia, and more. It really serves as a tangible history of the company in many ways, and was full of intriguing artifacts. Right at the beginning are portraits of those family members who were there at the beginning, with a picture of Bernardino Branca in the middle:



Bernardino was the original creator of the famous Fernet Branca, developing the formula with Dr. Fernet, a Swedish doctor, to assist malaria and cholera patients. With this aim, it was first tested in hospitals (where it was shown to help patients) and first sold in local farmacias, or pharmacies (quick aside: Italian pharmacists have a lot more leeway than those here in the States, in prescribing and diagnosing). The first cask that Bernardino made this herbal health mixture in is also in the museum, and lives right under his portrait:



When walking through the museum, we learned more about the Branca family, which still runs the company today (the head of the company, Count Niccolo Branca, is the 5th generation of the family to make Fernet Branca). The family focus isn’t just with the Brancas, either, as our tour guide Marco is the 4th generation of his family to work at Branca (he’s been there since 1972). This lengthy dedication and devotion is quite remarkable, and shows in the end results: the liqueurs. There are lots more interesting family stories, such as those about Maria Scala, who married the third son of Bernardino and eventually became one of the first women in charge of a large company, and who originally developed the focus on continually creative Branca advertising—the company has always been on the forefront of advertising and advertising trends. One of my favorite, and a somewhat obscure, piece of marketing is this Branca suitcase:



I would carry one of those in an instant (if you have one you’re tired of, please let me take it off your hands). The museum also has loads of production implements from the past, and some that were used in the past but are still utilized today, which points towards the Branca philosophy of novare serbando, or renew but conserve. For one example, Marco showed us these giant iron pots for herb maceration and heating, which are still used today, though the stirring is done mechanically instead of by hand:



The pots were at one point stirred with both iron and wood stirrers (depending on the spices), and as the iron sticks were “cleaning” the pots, many thought that Fer-net came from some rendition of “clean iron.” Which is, I have to say, a great story. Fernet Branca gets its signature bitter, herbal, rich taste from an wide assortment of herbs, roots, spices, and other ingredients, and there’s a giant, mind-blowing, round table in the museum where you can see the complete layout of ingredients:



I knew (hey, I’ve done a little research before) that there were around 40 ingredients, and that the list included such far-reaching items as gentian root, rhubarb, myrrh, cinchona bark, galanga, saffron, and others, but I learned while there that all the products used are completely natural, and that all the suppliers have to sign a code of sorts, that says the products were obtained in a non-exploitive way. Another (and this was fascinating to me, but hey, I’m interested in odd things) fact I learned is that the real secret in the secret recipe for Fernet-Branca is how the ingredients are treated in production. Only the family knows, and the Count himself still does the treating (which means he has to go to the other distillery, in Argentina, regularly). Cool, isn’t it? After spices, we got to see tons of hip old Fernet-Branca ads, including the first one to use the eagle-over-the-world logo:



This logo was created in 1895, due to the large amount of Fernet Branca imitations being shuffled out of back alleys—always look for the eagle bringing the Branca over the world to ensure you get the real thing. There are a number of side rooms along the museum’s main path, where you can get a better picture of how Branca workers worked back in the day (as they say), with an herbalist’s room, chemist’s room:



and more. The museum is persistent in remembering not just what was made, but those who made it—not to mention that the museum itself was built by current workers at the plant. Again, there’s that whole atmosphere of devotion to people and product, to stories and to history. After looking over the production process, the spices, and hearing about the history contained within, we walked into a room full of bottles, whole tables of old Fernet Branca bottles, and bottles of other products brought out by the company, including older bottles of Branca Menta (a minty-er and sweeter version of Fernet Branca released in 1965), bottles of Carpano Antica (Branca bought the Carpano company years ago in a particularly astute moment—Carpano Antica being the first Italian vermouth, and one still made partially by hand, and the Carpano company also making Italian vermouth Punt e’ Mes), and more bottles. There’s even a whole cabinet of Fernet Branca impersonators (I suppose success always leads to imitation):



Then we stopped in the bar room (of course the museum was going to have a bar at some point), talked a bit more about advertising, had some Carpano Antica (which I loved even before stopping, and which I was happy to have a glass of even at 11:30 AM), and saw a host of happening ads for the non-Fernet-Branca-Branca brands. If the tour ended now, I would have been more than happy–but we still had the actual distillery to see! Which I’ll talk more about in Part 2, so come on back. Oh, first, check out this sweet and colorful Punt e’ Mes ad (one of about, say, 96, that I wished I had on my walls at home):


Share '' on Delicious Share '' on Digg Share '' on Facebook Share '' on Google+ Share '' on LinkedIn Share '' on Pinterest Share '' on reddit Share '' on StumbleUpon Share '' on Twitter Share '' on Add to Bookmarks Share '' on Email Share '' on Print Friendly
May 5, 2011

What I’m Drinking: Welcome Back, Weary Traveler

Well, we’re back (from Italy, that is. If you didn’t know it, wife Nat and I and our two dogs have been enjoying our Italian pre-tirement for the last seven or so months. Interested? Read more about it). Re-entry into life into Seattle hasn’t been rough, but neither has it been a box of chocolates filled with booze. To ease the edges, and to help remind me of things from here I missed, when there, without forgetting what I loved there, I whipped up the following cocktail last night, and think I’ll be whipping up a few more over the next couple of days. See, bourbon is hard to track down in the I-tal, and so I wanted the drink to be serious on the bourbon side. But, I miss (already) having loads of Italian liqueurs in every café and bar, so I wanted hints of Italy surrounding the bourbon. Which led to the Welcome Back, Weary Traveler:


2-1/2 ounces bourbon (I used Blanton’s, but others may suffice)

1/2 ounce Luxardo Maraschino

1/4 ounce Fernet Branca

Orange twist, for garnish (I like’d a wider orange twist here)


1. Fill a cocktail shaker or mixing glass halfway full with cracked ie.


2. Add the bourbon, maraschino, and Fernet Branca. Stir well.


3. Strain into a cocktail glass or a stewardesses hat. Twist the twist and drink as happily as you can manage.

January 24, 2011

Cocktail to Cocktail Hour Episode Four, the Bitter Handshake and Andrew Bohrer

It’s the second appearance this season from imbibing magician Andrew Bohrer, who makes his newest special guest manifestation to teach you to make the Bitter Handshake, a Fernet Branca-based cocktail Andrew created (and one that’s become a huge hit).  You’ll also see hypnotic ice ball carving, hear about Andrew’s mystical spirit animal, view Andrew’s enchanted locks, and enjoy more supernatural shenanigans in this episode of the new season of the show about cocktails and drinking and good times, the Cocktail to Cocktail Hour.


*See all Cocktail to Cocktail Hour episodes


July 2, 2009

The Stomach Reviver Cocktail: In Case You Stuff Yourself This Weekend

It’s a holiday weekend, and you wanna get to it (hopefully yours starts on Friday, like mine), and I wanna get to it, but before then, I wanna drop a quick bit of holiday party science on you. You’re gonna eat too much this weekend (I’m also going for as many “nna” words a possible), but don’t wanna feel like the Blob (the fatty super villain, not the bubbly asteroid spin off). Which is why you should have the fixin’s for a Stomach Reviver on hand, cause it’ll cure your aching tummy, and let you have more fun-na. It goes like this:


Ice cubes

1-1/2 ounce brandy

1 ounce Kümmel

1/2 ounce Fernet Branca

2 dashes Peychaud’s bitters


1. Fill a cocktail shaker half way with ice cubes. Add everything. Shake, strain into a cocktail glass or straight down the ol’ feed hole.


It’s the double bitters (FB and Peychaud’s) I believe, that alleviates that over-full feeling. At least it did for me the other night, after I’d consumed like six pieces of pizza, some salad, a few bread sticks, and probably some ice cream. Who can remember everything? Anyway, I was out of Kümmel (that caraway-and-sometimes-fennel-flavored treat), and so used homemade fennel liqueur, and it went down like a good date gone south. Wait, that sounded bad. I meant that it was really a touch sweet (but not too much) on the front end, and then a touch bitter at the end. I like that. You should too. If you don’t have Kümmel, play around with subbing in another sweetish spiced liqueur, and let me know how it treated you, and what you’re gonna call it (besides wonderful relief, that is).

PS: Check out that rad antique’y shaker I picked up not long ago. It pours like a little teapot. That got tall.

Rathbun on Film