Friday, May 10, 2013

Cocktail of the Week: The Hanky Panky

I have reached another milestone on this path I tread. I have at long last purchased my own bottle of Fernet (pronounce the T) Branca. I have joined the ranks of the hardcore cocktail fanatics.

Fernet Branca is the most bitter member of the amaro family. I’ve heard it called Jägermeister for grown-ups but that’s not at all fair – not to Fernet, or Jägermeister, or grown-ups. Fernet’s taste is so, ahem, bracing that most people first drink it as a dare. Before that distinctive taste you’ll notice its aroma, which contains notes of eucalyptus, menthol, roofing tar and regret. (I kid. It’s only two of the four. And maybe not the two you think.) Like many liqueurs it consists of a hodgepodge of ingredients, the exact formula held in secret. Known elements include myrrh, assorted fungi and gargantuan amounts of saffron, with some speculating that production of Fernet Branca consumes the bulk of the world’s supply of the spice. Almost since its genesis in 1845 it’s been bruited as a potent digestif, capable of preventing hangovers and the pains of gustatory excess before they start.

Despite being the working definition of an acquired taste, Fernet has found devotees beyond its birthplace in Italy. How it’s consumed will tell you something about the person who ordered it. Odds are anyone asking for Fernet and Coke is from Argentina. Fernet and ginger ale = San Francisco. And if someone seated next to you orders it straight, turn to them and ask is-THIS-your-card? style, “What bar do you work at?” It never fails. Love of Fernet is a badge of honor in the service industry.

A small amount of this pungent potable makes a noteworthy addition to a handful of cocktails. One of the best known is the Hanky Panky, a variation on the sweet Martini with a history that sets a world record for sheer bloody Englishness. It was created by Ada Coleman, the former bar mistress at Claridge’s who was installed at the American Bar at the Savoy Hotel by her benefactor Rupert d’Oyly Carte, scion of the family famed for producing the work of Gilbert and Sullivan. (See what I mean? And I’m not done yet.) Coley, as she was known, devised the drink at the behest of Sir Charles Hawtrey, the lion of the British stage who appeared in several silent films. More importantly, he taught a young Noël Coward everything he knew about the theater. When Sir Charles sipped Coley’s creation he is said to have thundered in true Wodehousian fashion, “By Jove! That is the real hanky-panky!,” the term then meaning witchcraft as opposed to serving as a Match Game euphemism for, you know, whoopee.

Hawtrey’s remark was an apt one. Some sort of trickery is involved for the miniscule amount of Fernet to become a dominant but never overwhelming taste amidst the gin and sweet vermouth. There are worse ways to be introduced to this most intriguing of flavors.

The Hanky Panky

2 oz. gin
1 ½ oz. sweet vermouth
¼ oz. Fernet Branca

Stir. Strain. Garnish with an orange twist.