Thursday, October 6, 2011

Bitter truths


We spend much of our time talking about alcohol in consideration of its form (its tastes, colors, and textures), but less frequently do we turn to its functions. The primary one is obvious: it makes you feel really, really good - or really, really bad. (One often follows the other, you may have found.) Throughout much of history, drinking served another function: alcohol was believed to have medicinal properties. During Prohibition, one of the only legal ways to purchase whiskey or brandy was by getting a prescription from your doctor (!), and people throughout the world have long sworn by certain boozy home remedies. Some still laud the digestive-aid qualities of certain bitter spirits like Italian amari, including fernets, which are typically made with dozens of botanicals, like rhubarb, myrrh, gentian root, chamomile, red cinchona bark, and galangal, to name a few. The most popular variety is Fernet-Branca, which has been produced in Italy since 1845 (though as you'll see, "popular" is a relative term). 

"The popularization of Fernet has a hundred stories," says Tyler Wang of Drink (348 Congress Street, Boston, 617.695.1806) and No. 9 Park (9 Park Street, Boston, 617.742.9991). "I read once that bartenders started drinking it because they could fill up their espresso cups and get away with shooting it on the job. I've also heard that its historic unpopularity made it the most cost-effective way for bars to ‘fortify' their tenders." Owners certainly are more willing to look the other way when staff are drinking something they can't move off the shelves. And considering that its taste can gently be described as a bark- and mud-infused shot of nostril-burning mouthwash, it's not hard to see why it still hasn't exactly crossed over to the general drinking public.

But maybe there is something to the medicine thing, Wang says. "I think its medicinal qualities make it the perfect choice for an ever-hungover industry. Rumor is that Fernet's overbearing herbaceousness, poison-like, actually kick-starts the body's immune system. . . . No one would drink this stuff for fun, right?"

Probably not, unless it offered another valuable function - namely, bestowing insider status on those in the know. It's that purpose that Fernet, aka "the bartender's handshake," has primarily served in Boston over the past few years. In many fields, it's considered a badge of honor to be able to withstand the harshest stuff available, whether it's brutal noise bands among music nerds or difficult avant-garde films among cinephiles. Why should the bar world be any different? 

"Bitters, Fernet being the ultimate example, have a challenging flavor profile," says Bob McCoy of Island Creek Oyster Bar (500 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston, 617.532.5300). "It's something the masses make a face at, which in turn makes it all the more enticing for people on the inside. So it becomes a rite of passage of sorts and symbolizes the camaraderie among service professionals."

But there are some user-friendly options to help the medicine go down. The stalwart Toronto cocktail, made with rye, Fernet, sugar, and Angostura bitters, is one example, says Wang. The bittersweet, vegetal aperitif Cynar, with its artichoke notes, is another compromise. So is the slightly bitter Italian vermouth Punt e Mes. Either one can be subbed into a Manhattan or a Negroni for an easy introduction.

McCoy thinks Santa Maria al Monte could be next in line for the bitters-chasing crowd. "It's got all the bitter and herbaceous qualities of Fernet with a touch more sweetness, a real round flavor, and balance." The Czech herbal bitters Becherovka has been on the rise as well, he says, and could be a gateway bitter. "It's got great spice flavors of cinnamon, nutmeg, and clove, and it's great in cocktails, in hot drinks, or on its own."

Ramazzotti, with its root-beery citrus flavors, might be considered even more approachable. And Meletti is a viscous, floral, and saffron-forward amaro I've seen growing in popularity among bartenders. The most popular and venerable Italian digestif, Amaro Montenegro, likewise captivates with a bittersweet balance hinting at orange and caramel. 

All of the above are accessible ways to train your palate for Fernet. But after trying a few with bartender Joel Barbieri at the West Side Lounge (1680 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, 617.441.5566), attempting to figure out which might be the heir to the bitter throne, I realized something: if you do manage to develop a taste for the hard stuff, you may never want to go back. One seemed too syrupy, the next too insubstantial. Others, quite frankly, left a bitter taste in our mouths, and we kept wanting to go back to our preferred poison. Eventually the answer came. "You know the next Fernet is?" Barbieri said. "Fernet."

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