Let it never be said that I was unable to admit being wrong. I owe an apology to Fernet Branca - their product is still foul on its own, but, credit where credit is due, I've finally found a drink that uses the stuff and actually manages to taste good. (I'm not counting the Hanky Panky, which treats Fernet as a non-potable bitters.)
I was in New York this week for the Harlem Whiskey Renaissance (highly recommended!). I figured I should check out the Harlem cocktail scene while I was in town, and I'd heard great things about a place called Caballero. They're new, and they're still way under the radar - they haven't got a web presence that I can find, and I'm not sure whether that's a deliberate choice or they're just still working on it - but in any case, you can find them at 119th and St. Nicholas.
Caballero is very tequila-forward and very, very good. They have a house-made salt blend to use in their Palomas, if that gives you a sense: they hand-grind crystals of what I'm told was Mexican sea salt, Hawaiian volcanic salt (which was red!), and Himalayan pink salt, along with smaller amounts of other salts from around the world. Just a pinch goes into each drink, but you can think of it like a bitters - it adds a bit of body, and a subtle hint of flavor that ties the whole thing together.
That Paloma, incidentally, also used a mixed base of blanco and reposado tequila and a dash of blood orange liqueur, and it was heavenly. But that's not why I'm here (it would be difficult to replicate without their house-made ingredients anyhow).
I'm here because it was a stunningly slow night - step up your game, New York! it was eleven o'clock on a Thursday! - and that gave me a chance to get talking with Nick the bartender. Somewhere along the way I asked him what he usually drinks after his shift, and he said he opts for a Fernet and cola. I'd had just enough to drink to share how I really felt about Fernet Branca.
He took that as a challenge. I was skeptical, but I always admire that impulse. And that's how I came to be drinking the Dead Eye, the only drink on their menu with Fernet in it, and a real doozy of a cocktail. The bet was that if I didn't like the drink, it was on him; but if I did, I'd have to eat crow on my blog (which I'd mentioned I keep) and share the recipe.
And, well, here we are:
Dead Eye Cocktail
2 oz. Añejo Tequila
1/2 oz. Fernet Branca
1/2 oz. Islay Scotch
1/4 oz. Cynar
Fill with ~2oz. India Pale Ale
Top with 2 healthy dashes of barrel-aged orange bitters
Garnish with a cilantro stalk
A few notes: the tequila was one I didn't recognize, and I don't recall the name; I'll see if I can get it from them and I'll post it if I do. The Scotch, I believe, was Laphroaig 10. The IPA was super hoppy, but I'm not sure which one it was. As for the bitters, they house-age them in mason jars with staves from old tequila barrels (they're on display behind the bar, which is really cool), but if you don't want to make them yourself at home, Nick recommended substituting the whiskey barrel-aged orange bitters from Eldritch Spirits in Rhode Island (unfortunately hard to find, even around here) or, in a pinch, one dash each of Fee Bros. whiskey barrel-aged aromatic bitters and gin barrel-aged orange bitters.
There's obviously a lot going on here - crazy bold flavors bouncing off each other in all directions. The smoke from the Scotch complements the low notes in the Fernet and the Cynar, and the wood notes in the tequila. The hoppiness in the beer plays off the Cynar's vegetal notes, the mint from the Fernet and the herbaceousness in the cilantro garnish. The orange can play in both sandboxes, and it, the cilantro, and the tequila form their own triangle. It's a loud, crowded drink, not subtle in the slightest, but it's remarkably good if you can handle it. And I'll be the first to admit that it just wouldn't work without the Fernet.
Unfortunately, I'd already put my camera away for the night, so I haven't got a picture of it. But Nick has an Instagram account, and he promised to put up a picture of the drink for me to link to. Check him out here, and happy holidays - it looks like Fernet Branca isn't that bad after all!