Arcane Fernet started as a dare. David Kyrejko had been brewing beer whiskey out of the Industry City Distillery in Sunset Park since 2014. This infrequently made vacuum-distilled beverage—created with equipment he builds himself and sold under the Lone Wolf label—is “a weird whiskey,” Kyrejko says. “All the hops, all the yeast character—everything is maintained. Nothing is destroyed by the heat.” For someone who builds his own distilling equipment and loves a weird project like this, making a fernet seems completely sensible. When a friend dared him to reproduce the taste of Fernet-Branca in late 2015, he went for it.
“I’m really into the analytics of flavor,” he recently told me in his tiny workshop. And there are a lot of flavors in the digestif, which is technically a bitter Italian amaro made from an array of herbs and spices. The Brooklyn bedroom–size workshop, which feels to a layperson like a mad chemist’s lab you’d see in cartoons, includes a tall bookshelf filled with jars of various herbs. As I plugged in my phone to record our conversation, I was warned about the heat of a bubbling beaker.
Replicating Fernet-Branca (the most famous brand), while a jokey distiller dare in this case, doesn’t necessarily make anyone more likely to drink it. To most, Branca tastes disgusting—overly herbaceous on the front, a minty assault at the end. There are cocktails where it works: In Argentina, the fernet and cola is incredibly popular—but it’s not something you often hear ordered in New York. The most successful sips I’ve had were the Argentinean Sour at Le Mal Necessaire in Montréal, Canada, and the Cure at La Factoria in San Juan, Puerto Rico—both featured lime, chocolate and a frothy foam in some measure, which calm the worst aspects of Fernet-Branca. Obviously, if Kyrejko wanted a broader audience to drink his experiments, there was ample room for improvement.
“I liked that it is soothing on the stomach,” Kyrejko says, but that was about it. So after doing all the initial work of replicating Branca, it made sense to, he says, “do something that doesn’t suck.” In four months on the market, he’s now already produced 400 bottles. (For comparison, the Lone Wolf runs are only seven bottles per week.) Beer bars have been buying them up. “It’s amazing how beer and fernet sort of go hand-in-hand,” he says, the latter soothing on the stomach after a few too many brews. “And fernet and bartenders.” The latter were actually instrumental in the flavor development; he’s on recipe number 27 thanks to their input, and since many bartenders have a habit of drinking it, they have a lot of stake in finding a better fernet.
“Fernet is known as the bartender’s handshake,” says Ulysses Vidal, the bar manager at Manhattan’s Employees Only, who discovered this fact five years into his career. “It’s a sign of hospitality for a bartender to sit at another bar and be given a shot of fernet. It doesn’t mean that we all swallow it easily,” Vidal admits, but he does enjoy it. As this formerly secret sign has made its way into the general bar-going public (“civilians, as we call them”), fernet has been steadily becoming more sought-after. Once your palate adapts, he says, you can pick out the different flavors, and there are cocktails like Employees Only’s Fernando—which calls for 1¼ ounces—and the classics Hanky Panky and Toronto that use it to great effect.
What Arcane has going for it is that it tastes better than Branca, which is immediately apparent on the nose before you even take a sip—more mellow and inviting. Kyrejko wanted to end “Branca-face,” the scrunching-up of one’s nose that occurs after a shot of the fernet.
But Fernet-Branca has had a stranglehold on the market—despite many competitors like Mexico’s Fernet Vallet, European brands and this new breed of American makers—one that it grips onto tightly through things like military-style coins that are awarded to exceptional bartenders and branded bicycles given to bars. Can Arcane Fernet break through?
“It will be an uphill battle for craft fernets to get a foothold in the market,” says Robert Simonson, cocktail writer and author of A Proper Drink. “Branca is such a prominent name and dominating force that most people assume it is a thing unto itself. They don’t know fernet is a category of liqueur with a long history and many rival products.” In New York, we also don’t have any bartenders who are questioning the influence of big brands in general on the industry, he says.
What Arcane has going for it is that it tastes better than Branca, which is immediately apparent on the nose before you even take a sip—more mellow and inviting. Kyrejko wanted to end “Branca-face,” the scrunching-up of one’s nose that occurs after a shot of the fernet. He whittled down the source to a couple of factors, including the questionable alcohol and excessive amount of sugar being used in the large manufacturer’s bottles. Arcane Fernet includes 20 different herbs, like the classically used gentian root—as well as the unusual choice of hops, which isn’t so unusual if you consider his beer-whiskey roots. He also uses far less sugar and peppermint for its clean mintiness. The striking bottles have already found a spot on shelves throughout Brooklyn, including in a daiquiri at Cardiff Giant in Clinton Hill and as a shot companion to beer at Strong Rope Brewery in Gowanus (both are excellent introductions for fernet virgins).
After our meeting in the lab, I enjoyed a couple of tacos at Tacos El Bronco. While waiting for the train, I spied Kyrejko coming down the subway stairs carrying a big box. He was off to do deliveries himself in Bushwick and Ridgewood, at Kings County Brewers Collective, Yours Sincerely and a few other locales. It occurred to me then that dares rarely have such lasting—and delicious—results.