How To Drink Less

How Italians spell "Punk'd"

Eric Asimov gives a rundown on alcoholic digestives, those heavenly nectars which provide abdominal relief from the overindulgence often associated with Thanksgiving or other holiday meals. He focuses on amari, the Italian iteration of the soothing tonics.

The word refers to the bitterness, derived from quinine, that unifies this disparate group of liqueurs. Hundreds of amari are produced in Italy. Each has a proprietary formula that generally includes various herbs, roots, flowers and spices, which are macerated in alcohol, sometimes blended with a sweet syrup and tempered in barrels or bottles.

Among the amari are various stylistic subsets. Some are made with artichokes, like the well-known Cynar. Others incorporate black truffles, or the husks of green walnuts. Perhaps the best known are the fernets, which refers not just to the famous Fernet-Branca but to an entire run of bracingly bitter amari.

Do read on, there’s plenty more to learn. But this dovetails nicely with something I’d like to share: Alex Balk’s Foolproof Alcohol Intake Reduction System.

The plan is simplicity itself, but let me share with you its origin: Recently, I found myself in a situation where it occurred to me that perhaps I might be skirting that delicate mark between convivial inebriate and comprehensive dipsomaniac. It is a distinction between which we all straddle at one point or another, and there’s absolutely no shame in recognizing that you’re on the other side of the line so long as you’re willing to do something about it. So I sat myself down and came up with a scenario by which to regulate my intake: I would drink nothing alcoholic but Fernet-Branca.

Should you be unfamiliar with Fernet, here’s a brief description:

Fernet-Branca is a dark, syrupy alcoholic drink similar to an amaro, with a flavour that’s best described as being a cross between medicine, crushed plants and bitter mud. The exact recipe of Fernet-Branca is a secret but the producers, Fratelli Branca Distillerie, do say that it contains 27 different herbs and spices taken from four continents. Among the known ingredients are aloe, gentian root, rhubarb, gum myrrh, red cinchona bark, galanga and zedoary. The rumoured ingredients include saffron.

While it sounds a bit unpleasant, that’s the point. More importantly, it is 80 proof, so your demanding liver will be less upset with you for rationing its usual treats.

Unsurprisingly, Fernet is massively popular in San Francisco. This makes a lot of sense, because the drink is the liqueur equivalent of the kind of person who radiates disdain for American professional sports but can go on and on about the beauty of soccer. It adds an instant patina of class — one of the more telling class distinctions of our age, as I believe Joseph Epstein said somewhere, being the preference for bitter over sweet — and sophistication by the mere act of chugging it down. The fact that your resulting belches will convey the fragrance of those gifts ferried across the desert to celebrate the birth of Our Lord must be considered a pleasant side effect.

And that’s how the system works. Should you wish to reduce your intake of alcohol, restrict yourself to Fernet. I assure you, you will be back in the category of “genial tippler” in no time. I should note that I myself was unable to fully abide by this rule because my preference for not constantly convulsing made a wider palette of beverage an almost medical necessity, but I’m still pretty sure the idea is a solid one. You’re welcome.