A blessing under the bitter notes

A bitter cup reminds us that it's possible for things to get better with age.

I’ve always loved the final scene in the 2012 Batman flick The Dark Knight Rises. Gotham City is saved, and the camera takes us to a small café in Florence, on the banks of the Arno. Bruce Wayne’s butler Alfred is on a much-needed holiday, sipping a glass of Fernet Branca, when, surprisingly, he meets the gaze of Mr. Wayne himself, who was presumed dead.

Who doesn’t love a happy ending? Though I’ll confess I was every bit as interested in what was in Alfred’s glass as I was in the survival of Gotham’s strangest billionaire. Alfred is played by the septuagenarian Michael Caine, as cool as ever, his Cockney edginess now married to a genial and warm old-world charm. Who wouldn’t want to have a drink with Michael Caine?

So I set out to the provincial pharmacy and sourced a bottle of Fernet Branca, among the most famous of the manifold Italian amari or bitters. I poured a dram, sniffed it, tipped it back, and almost spat it right out.

How to describe it? Let’s go with “strong shoe polish vibes”. . .

Thanks, Mr. Caine.

Maybe I should’ve expected it to be this way. Fernet Branca is a concoction of gentian root, bitter aloe, myrrh, cinchona bark, angelica, peppermint and more. Most of which rarely make my Bulk Barn shopping list.

Half true at best

However: as I write, I’m just days past my 43rd birthday, more than 10 years on from taking that bibulous inspiration from Michael Caine, and I find myself reaching for that old bottle again, just to see.

And you know, it’s not terrible. Maybe even kind of . . . good?

What’s changed? Not the Fernet – it’s had the same recipe since 1845, back when it was marketed as an anti-choleric. I suppose it’s me, then, who’s gone through some changes, drank a bitter cup or two, found an appreciation for things I thought I didn’t care for. This isn’t the way it usually goes; typically we think the spirit itself is what needs to grow older, to age in a barrel somewhere before it’s palatable. But in this case I was the one who needed to age.

In our youth-obsessed culture, we often think getting older means we lose capacities.

The words on the page get blurrier, conversation gets muddled and lost in the background din, we walk with a cane. But that’s at best half true, and it strikes me as rather ironic that it takes a literal bitter cup to remind me it’s possible for things to get better with age, too: for palates to expand, for thirsts to be quenched in unexpected ways, for a blessing to be found under the bitter notes.

In the deep mid-winter

I’d be remiss to tell you all this without leaving you with a recipe, should you find yourself curious – and well-seasoned – enough to try the stuff. Fill a mixing glass with a handful of ice. Pour over two ounces of Canadian rye, a half ounce of double-strength sugar syrup, and a half ounce of Fernet Branca. Stir until cold. Strain into a coupe, and take a strip of peel off an orange, expressing its oils onto the surface of the cocktail before dropping it in. This is called a “Toronto” and it’s the perfect post-prandial sipper. Let it warm you through and through in the very depths of mid-winter, whether you reckon that season according to the calendar, stage of life, or both.


  • Brian Bork

    Brian Is CC’s Review Editor and a CRC chaplain at the University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University.

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