Meet Freddy: Australia’s New Ambassador for the Branca portfolio

Story & Interview by Andy Ratcliff 

How Fernet-Branca, the herbal flavour bomb from Milan became a bartender obsession

I was first introduced to Fernet-Branca as a barback, sometime in 2010 at Shady Pines Saloon. The manager lined up the shots, rang the old cow bell and the team smacked one back with lecherous enthusiasm and the idealism that we owned the night. Originally, I was expecting the shot to be whisky but nothing could really prepare me for the onslaught of a frozen, herbal army, attacking my palate with its giant flavor bomb. I can still taste it to this day.

Fernet perplexes people, it divides people and it brings people together. I have friends that will exclusively drink it like a ride-or-die situation and I have friends that refer to it as the ‘in-joke’ that every bartender is ‘in-on’ except for them.

Fernet perplexes people, it divides people and it brings people together. I have friends that will exclusively drink it like a ride-or-die situation and I have friends that refer to it as the ‘in-joke’ that every bartender is ‘in-on’ except for them.

The Fernet-Branca distillery, located in Milan, Italy, has a long and storied history dating back to 1845. It was founded by Bernardino Branca, an apothecary who developed a secret blend of twenty-seven herbs and spices that he believed had medicinal properties. This blend, which came to be known as Fernet-Branca, was first sold as a tonic to help alleviate digestive issues, primarily caused by cholera, which is apparently way-less fun than having covid. Many people don’t know that Fernet is actually a category of amaro and Fernet-Branca is widely regarded as the dominant force in the category.

Like many alcohol brands, Fernet Branca’s recipe is a closely guarded secret that is only accessed by the chairman of the company, and can only be passed down from Father to Son. The botanicals themselves are not a mystery and are actually on display in the museum in Milan where visitors can smell and even taste them. These include the likes of myrrh, saffron, and chamomile, but the specific proportions of each ingredient are known only to a select (and lucky) few.

Over time, Fernet-Branca has gained a reputation as a popular aperitif and digestif. The demand for the drink began to grow and in the early 20th century, the Branca distillery expanded and began exporting its products to other countries. Today, Fernet-Branca is enjoyed by people all over the world and is considered a classic component of many cocktails.

In the late 1800s, Fernet-Branca was introduced to the United States and quickly became a popular choice among bartenders and cocktail enthusiasts, especially towards the end of Prohibition. It is often used in cocktails such as the Hanky Panky, the Toronto, and of course, the Fernet and Cola – with one consumed, on average, every thirteen seconds in Argentina.

Fernet even built a second distillery outside of Buenos Aires to handle the demand.
The obsession within the hospitality industry came from a group of bartenders across the San Francisco bay area sometime in the late 90’s, where they’d ‘test your mettle’ with a shot of Fernet Branca. This is where the term the ‘bartenders handshake’ came from and since then it’s caught on across the globe.

During 2017’s Tales of the Cocktail, I was introduced to another way you can meet the Dark Goddess. The 50/50 is a shot containing half Fernet Branca, half Branca Menta, and it was slid across the bar to me by Damon Boelte. There’s not much about the Amaro category he doesn’t know, and if you’re ever in New York, you should check out his place, Grand Army, in Brooklyn.

Throughout its history, the Fernet-Branca distillery has remained a family-owned business, passed down through generations of the Branca family. Today, the company is still headquartered in Milan and continues to produce its iconic drink using the same traditional methods and proprietary blend, as it has now for over 150 years.

Federico (Freddy) Malavenda has joined the Fernet Branca family as the new Australian Brand Ambassador.

Why don’t you tell us about where you’re from and what got you started in hospitality?
Sure! I’m Italian and I was born in Trieste, a coastal city in the North East. It’s a beautiful place with the best sunsets you’ll ever see! I started working in hospitality, as a washing up guy, when I moved to London in 2010. I really believe that starting from that role helped me to understand a lot of how to work in a restaurant, but at the time it was only a matter of getting paid to be honest, but then I moved upstairs to the bar as a glassy and I started learning a lot. I worked hard and stuck around the same venue for eight years, becoming the bar manager there. I pretty much stumbled in the hospitality industry and never looked back.

“Fernet-Branca is not only an amaro… it is a lot more! It is history, family, the hospitality shot, the bartender handshake, Italian excellence and an inclusive product. There is just nothing else like it.”

Why Fernet Branca? What is it that drew you to the world of amari and other products that you represent?
Because Fernet-Branca is not only an amaro… it is a lot more! It is history, family, the hospitality shot, the bartender handshake, Italian excellence and an inclusive product. There is just nothing else like it.
In my hometown, the aperitivo hour is a tradition and a ritual so I have always been around vermouths, amaros, and bitters, but it’s only when I was working at Bistecca in Sydney that I’ve started realising how many amaros there are around and fell in love with the category!

For the younger bartenders out there, what’s the coin game all about? Is the brand still focusing on it and am I cool if I don’t have one?
The Fernet-Branca coin shows Branca’s ability to take a ritual like the “bartender handshake” and make it tangible. It is a collectible and a momentary achievement, but it also is a sign of respect for the brand and it gives to coin holding bartenders a sense of belonging.
When you place a Fernet-Branca coin on the bar you make a statement and the brand is definitely still focusing on it, it’s a big part of the charm. And yes, you are still cool if you don’t have one…but you could be cooler! haha

What would you say to trade or consumers out there that think that Fernet is purely to be shot straight out of the freezer into their mouth but nothing more?
Think again friends! It can be sipped, mixed and does a fantastic job in cocktails! (have you had a Toronto? Damn!). It’s great also to see how bartenders are experimenting with Fernet-Branca in cocktails with more of a fruity profile. There are some delicious ones out there. But hey, if you want to shoot it, just go for it!

Do you have any cocktail suggestions that the brand or you yourself are championing at the moment?
At the moment I am enjoying the “Fernet Me Not”, equal parts of Fernet-Branca, Orgeat and Lime, served straight and up. Bittersweet and tarty.
As an aperitivo I have my Fernet-Branca with soda, served tall with olives. The brine from the olives just matches perfectly with the bitter notes of the amaro.
Fernet-Branca makes a mean Manhattan too, just swap the bitters for it for more of a balsamic twist. “50/50” is also delish, simply equal parts of Fernet-Branca and Branca Menta for your sipping pleasure.

This is your first role as a brand ambassador. It’s often an unspoken law for BA’s to be seen out and about at all hours of the night in bars as well as during the day in the office. How do you plan on having any life balance within the role?
Work/life balance is really important, I’ll have to focus on sticking to a plan that allows me to perform at my best at work but without neglecting my personal life. Not sure how exactly that will look like, but I’ll figure it out on the way. It’ll be hard but I can do it!

For any younger kids out there that are interested in becoming a BA. How did you go about it and what sort of skills do you think are necessary for them to obtain to be successful in a role like this one?
I have never planned on becoming a BA, I was already an “unofficial BA” before taking this job because I love these products. If I could give a piece of advice to anyone wanting to become a BA it would be: find the brand you love first, then work hard to become the ambassador of that brand. You need to speak the language of hospitality people, be genuine and be able to communicate your passion for the products to the people in front of you.

You can contact Freddy @freddy.branca on Insta, or please reach out to your local Amber Beverage rep for more info on the Branca Portfolio.

This article featured in our Jan/Feb issue and was shot on location by Christopher Pearce at Piccolo Bar.