Whatever your plans this holiday season, odds are there’s a celebratory feast or three in your future. Time, kitchen space, and stomach space are all at a premium. The last thing you want during the holidays is a complicated cocktail—or an overly filling one.
The Italians know a thing or two about big meals. And they’re masters of the art of the digestivo. A short pour of something stiff and bitter after dinner really does help you digest. (And earlier in the day, it can help work up an appetite.)
So this holiday season, we’re reaching for one of the bitterest bottles of all, Fernet-Branca. Some digestivo-style liqueurs are somewhat restrained; Fernet is anything but. Powerfully bitter—the kind of bitter than makes your hair stand on end and sends shivers down your spine. It’s not for the faint of heart. But it is compelling and delicious in its particular way. And after a joyful and excessive (or, depending, just excessive) holiday feast, you’ve gotta call in the big guns.
All three of these drinks are straightforward, winter-friendly, and guaranteed to make that meal go down a little easier.
Gently Bitter: Fernet and Cider
If you prefer your Fernet in a slightly more balanced, dare we say, palatable concoction, it’s best to mix it with something on the sweeter side. Fresh apple cider is a great pick—ideal for the season, perhaps kicking around your fridge already, it’s a bright, juicy base for the unmistakable Fernet slicing right through.
Instructions: In a cocktail shaker with ice, combine four ounces of fresh apple cider, an ounce of Fernet-Branca, half an ounce of fresh lemon juice, and half an ounce of simple syrup. Shake until very well-chilled, then strain into a rocks glass with fresh ice. Garnish with an apple wedge.
A Little More Bitter: Fernet Cran-hattan
If you’ve acquired a taste for Fernet, but still like it tempered with other flavors, let us suggest this Manhattan variation: bold with bourbon, given a bitter edge with Fernet, and gaining a tart, seasonal element from cranberry juice. Here we’re using 100% cranberry—not the kind cut with apple or grape—which has the concentrated flavor and acidity we’re looking for.
Instructions: In a mixing glass with ice, combine an ounce and a half of bourbon, half an ounce of Fernet-Branca, half an ounce of sweet vermouth, and half an ounce of 100% cranberry juice. Add a dash of Angostura bitters in there. Stir until very well-chilled, then strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a large grapefruit peel, twisted over the surface of the drink to spritz its citrus oils across the surface.
Crazy Bitter: Panky Hanky
There’s a lesser-known classic called the Hanky Panky that’s essentially a gin martini with a splash of Fernet. Here, we’re building on that base but concocting something taller and more refreshing. Gin, a full ounce of Fernet, and dry vermouth make for a powerfully herbal-bitter combination, lightened up with soda, but not tamed by it. Don’t skip the lemon wedge garnish, which keeps this on the delicious side of punishingly bitter.
Instructions: In a tall glass with ice, combine an ounce of gin, an ounce of Fernet-Branca, an ounce of dry vermouth, and a quarter-ounce of simple syrup. Top with two ounces of club soda. Give a brief stir, and garnish with a lemon wedge, squeezed into the glass before drinking.
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