I’m standing in the lobby of the Hotel Monteleone in the New Orleans French Quarter with Count Eduardo Branca. It’s late July and there’s a particular dampness and discomfort hanging in the air that people in the Northeast call disgusting — and people in the Southeast call Monday. Booty shorts, tank tops and sandals are the clothing of choice. But Branca is having none of it in his smartly tailored suit. You see, when you’re born and raised in Milan and away on business, you dress the part. Plus, you’re not going to find a sixth generation member of the Branca Family, one of the most power spirits producers in all of Italy, caught dead rocking a pair of Tevas.
The 28-year-old is in America for only the second time in his life, having been dispatched by his powerful father Niccolò Branca (also a Count) to talk to people about Fernet-Branca, the cornerstone product in the family’s portfolio of spirits that include highly sought-after vermouths Punt E Mes and Carpano Antica. To the un-initiated, Fernet-Branca in a potent spirit made from 40 herbs, spices and fungi that is basically driving the chef and mixology world wild right now.
Which is why it’s absolutely astonishing that Branca goes unnoticed while standing in the lobby of the Monteleone on this afternoon that happens to coincide with Tales of the Cocktail — the largest gathering of bartenders and spirits supporters in the world. It’s as if Justin Bieber took a shift at the Aeropostale at the Manhattan Mall and quietly folded for a couple hours, ignored. But nobody knows the man behind the iconic spirit because, well, he doesn’t do a lot of interviews and spends most of his year at the company’s headquarters. After walking around the Quarter for a while, we settled in for drinks (Fernet cocktails between shots of Fernet) at Bellocq on the edge of the city’s central business district where I find out more about the man with the very potent last name.
How do you drink Fernet-Branca in Milan?
I never drink cocktails to tell you the truth. Unfortunately, in Milan, we still don’t have this culture of mixology and making cocktails this well. We have some cocktails but we are still really raw.
Where did you first experience Fernet used in mixology?
The first cocktail done well with Fernet has been in the United States. I arrived in Dallas and met the first mixologist and he said that he did cocktails with Fernet and I was honestly skeptical. But the guy literally took my arm and said, “Try this!” I tried it and I was like, “Oh my gosh! You can do such amazing stuff with Fernet!” I was so surprised and it brought me to a completely new level. I am now going back home with some good recipes.
When you are out talking about Fernet throughout the States, are people grabbing your arm everywhere? What are you saying to them?
The first thing that they say is, “Thank you!” They don’t understand the feeling that it gives me. My heart grows so big because it’s something that my great-great-grandfather did, and to have people appreciate the product so much is unbelievable. Afterwards, I speak to them and they are so curious about it and ask me a lot of questions.
What kind of questions do they ask?
“Where do you live?” They want to know where it comes from, how it is made, where the name comes from, when and why it was founded. We’ll start speaking and time flies. We’ll go an hour-and-a-half speaking about the spices and the reasons behind the spices inside! Sometimes, people come to me with questions that are like, whoa, amazing.
So tell me, how do people drink Fernet in Italy?
They drink it as a digestif, after a meal.
It’s an older crowd drinking it, no?
Yes, it’s an older crowd. There’s another way to drink it too: A lot of workers also drink it in the morning with coffee and call it caffè corretto. So, it’s a small espresso with a dash of Fernet inside. Normally, they start their day like this.
No one does that in New York!
I like American coffee, though. But you should try it. Have a coffee, maybe at 4 o’clock in the afternoon. Put some Fernet-Branca inside – it’s the perfect match.
Why is Fernet so big in Argentina?
There’s a long answer. Fernet-Branca was founded in 1845 — from then until the 1940s, we had a huge immigration out of Italy. One of the biggest places where people went was outside of the U.S. was Argentina. In the 1850s, we started bringing it there, and then we opened the factory in Argentina around 1890 — a really, really small one in the center of Buenos Aires. Nowadays, we have a newer factory outside. It began because there were Italians there and we wanted to cater to the community. Then you had the added Argentinian taste. Around 15 years ago, the cocktail community started and the Fernet started being mixed with Coke.
I don’t personally enjoy Fernet that way, but it’s one of the national drinks of Argentina, no?
I think it is the national drink!
Do you like it with Coke?
I actually like it a lot. I’ve had Argentinians come up to me and tell me that they drink it as nine parts of Fernet, two ice cubes and one part of Coke. That’s the way they drink it. But for me, after dinner when I go partying with my friends on Friday night and they have their vodka and Red Bull or whatever, I cannot.
So you party with friends?
Yeah, of course. I don’t stay home alone on Friday nights [laughs].
Are you married?
No, no, no, no, no. I am not married. No, no, no.
So you go out in Milan?
Yeah, I go out in Milan and Florence. Also, Switzerland is only one-and-a-half hours away so you can go skiing there in winter. Then you have lakes and the seaside. I am a pretty normal guy.
Your father is still active in the company?
Yeah, yeah. He is CEO.
He is the boss?
He is the boss!
What is he like?
He is a really amazing guy. He has real vision.
Is he hard on you as an employee?
Between 9 o’clock in the morning and 8 o’clock at night, I am not treated like his son. I am treated like everybody else — if I make mistakes, my father can get pretty angry at me. He doesn’t care about shouting at my in front of everybody. This is something that I love about my dad — I would get angry if my father treated me differently.
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