Did I Just Drink Actual Poison?
Snake oil cures what ails you, or so they say. They say the same thing about Digestifs, the category of alcohol-based after dinner drinks that claim to aid digestion, reduce effects of hangovers, cure menstrual cramps, make you feel younger, healthier, more virile, etc. etc. Even if you don’t regularly partake in digestifs, you’re probably familiar with a few of them: brandy, sherry, cognac, sambuca, fruit-infused liquors such as Grand Marnier and limoncello, and, the ubiquitous college-party staple, Jägermeister.
How about herbal-based digestifs, are you into them? Have you tasted Underberg, Herbs de Majorca, Unicum, the drink that sounds like something you’d find in a hospital’s hazardous waste barrel, or Fernet-Branca, which actually tastes like it came from a hospital’s hazardous waste barrel? Well, I have so you don’t have to.
On a recent trip to Italy, we stopped at a little bar in Trieste to enjoy a digestive after a long day of eating and drinking. By “we” I mean my lovely Austrian friends, Mischa and Fritz, and my husband, Clark. The three of them ordered Fernet-Branca and I ordered a Bailey’s on the rocks. My husband ostracized me for my drink choice, maybe because the bottle cap of Bailey’s was encrusted with a greyish crystallized substance indicating an age no longer compatible with consumption, or maybe because he still thinks you can’t drink the water there because of the plague. Regardless, I chose, instead, to join them in Fernet-Branca, up.
Oh! my merciful God in heaven. I was completely caught off guard by the oily, black elixir. Bitter is an understatement, as is terrible, revolting and vile. It tasted like pureed penicillin, and I would know that because I took a lot of penicillin for ear infections as a kid. My mother, a really good cook but less so a caregiver, crushed up penicillin tablets and put them in prune yogurt in an attempt to get me to take the medicine (it was before it was available in pink bubble gum suspension fluid). So, that night in Trieste, I was assaulted again with a taste so bitter, it caused facial gyrations and dry heaves that left the three others doubled over with laughter. When I recovered, I declared that my lips would never again meet “Franca,” the rechristened designation for Fernet-Branca.
I’ve tried Underberg and found it quite tolerable, almost pleasant in an “I dare you to drink this” way. A few days after the Franca incident at a tiny bar in Venice, I tried again to consume a digestive. The Averna was a bit softer, not as bitter and less offensive, but still not for me. I will stick to my Bailey’s, maybe a Sambuca now and then, or maybe I just won’t eat and drink so much to require a digestif.
Or, naaah . . . Say ciao to Trieste . . more to come on this beautiful seaside town soon.