Whiskey buck slushy, Letherbee Fernet
  • Julia Thiel
  • The Bitter Bourbon Buck, Letherbee Fernet

I stopped by Parson’s earlier this week for the launch party of Letherbee’s new fernet—a type of amaro that’s incredibly popular in Argentina (even more so than in Italy, where it originated) but less well known in the United States (outside San Francisco, anyway). Distiller Nathan Ozug says he’s been into Italian bitter liqueurs for a while, and has wanted to make his own version of fernet since he first began working for Letherbee a year and a half ago.

His favorite amaro, he says, “depends on the day,” but he adds that there’s nothing too bitter for him. Letherbee’s fernet doesn’t fit into the grimace-inducingly bitter category of amari, though; it’s not nearly as difficult to drink straight as their besk (formerly known as malort). It does take a minute to get used to the slightly medicinal flavor, but once your palate adjusts, the bitterness—in combination with the mint, fennel, and licorice flavors—becomes bracing and refreshing, counterbalanced by a fruity sweetness. I would have preferred to drink it over ice, but it wasn’t bad sipped from a shot glass either. And Letherbee founder Brenton Engel was taking swigs of it from a bottle he held onto throughout our conversation (though he was also happy to share it with anyone in the vicinity).

Brenton Engel (left) and Nathan Ozug

The fernet’s ingredients, the distillers said, include saffron, spearmint, peppermint, eucalyptus, rhubarb root, licorice, fennel, and cardamom, plus several bittering agents: wormwood, gentian, and aloe powder. Like most fernets, it’s supposed to soothe the stomach and help with digestion; amari are often drunk after dinner as digestifs for this reason.

Engel says that unlike Letherbee’s other products, the fernet is just meant to be a classic liqueur. “The gin is a very unique flavor profile,” he says. “The absinthe is different in that it’s barrel aged. The [besk] is obviously unique. There’s nothing too crazy or off the wall about this one . . . it doesn’t have some zany, over-the-top, weird Letherbee spin to it.”

One way in which their fernet is different from others, Engel says, is that they tried to give it a silky, almost oily texture to make it well-suited for use in cocktails. “We didn’t want it to feel drying or harsh,” he says.
Parson’s bartender Charlie Schott developed the Bitter Bourbon Buck slushy incorporating the fernet, based on a recipe that Ozug used to make when he worked at Longman & Eagle. The buck is a classic cocktail that involves ginger beer, citrus juice, and liquor; Ozug’s version used Fernet Branca and Schott tweaked it slightly to account for differences with the Letherbee fernet (and making it into a slushy). It’s still a simple cocktail: bourbon, ginger beer, lime, and just a quarter ounce of fernet. It’s a small quantity, Schott says, because “it comes through really strong; it’s got really pronounced flavors that cut through everything.” It’ll be available off and on throughout the summer.

Julia Thiel writes about booze on Thursdays.