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How this Italian liquor was sold legally and survived Prohibition in the US.

In 1845, herbalist Bernardino Branca was trying to treat cholera in Milan, Italy by creating what may be the first known fernet: an Italian type of amaro, or bitter herbal liqueur made using 27 herbs, roots, and spices. Little did he know, his recipe would remain intact for nearly two centuries and lead to the popular amaro Fernet-Branca.

“Fernet-Branca was born more as a medicine and not as a spirit,” sixth-generation heir Edoardo Branca said in an interview.

Today, the bitter is universally popular in Argentina and gaining popularity in the US, particularly in San Francisco, where it was sold legally during Prohibition because of its medicinal properties. So Fernet-Branca wasn’t born as a liqueur; it was born as a medicine. When Branca family started to export the liquor to the United States, it was sold in pharmacies as well as in bars. When Prohibition was instituted, the Food & Drug Administration determined that Fernet-Branca could still be sold as medicine, so that’s how the brand kept going. This is basically how Fernet-Branca survived Prohibition when so many other liqueur brands went out of business during those times.

“In the United States, we were the only spirit that was still sold in pharmacies because we were sold as a cough syrup,”

said Edoardo Branca, who recently moved from Italy to San Francisco to help expand the family brand.

“When Prohibition finished, I think my great-grandfather was one of the only people that was really, really sad about it because we were the only spirit in the United States without having any competitor.”

The first receipt for sale of Fernet-Branca in the U.S. is from 1862 in San Francisco. It’s hard to explain because the product originated in Milan, so you’d expect New York City or somewhere on the East Coast to be the first place it was sold. But there’s just always been this mythical connection between San Francisco and Fernet-Branca.

According to Mr Branca “The recipe has been a secret for the past 172 years. It’s something really unique — we have 27 herbs coming from all around the world — and this created a lot of buzz around the product.” Nowadays, the company continues to adapt to keep up with consumer market trends and needs, says Branca, but preserves its process, values, and ultimately, its recipe.

The Branca family understands the importance of constantly innovating and adapting. After all, to last more than 170 years, there’s no room for self-approbation.



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