If anyone ever asks if you’d like to try a bitter aloe crystal, the unequivocal answer is, “Absolutely not.”
I know because I chomped on one of the maniacal black crystals at Liquid Riot Bottling Co. in Portland as owner Eric Michaud, 35, showed me the stash of 22 herbs and botanicals that go into making Fernet Michaud, Maine’s first (and so far only) fernet liquor.
Michaud explained that he spent two years testing batches in order to zero in on the ingredients. The herb that finally brought his recipe together? Burdock root. “It gave the fernet a deep earthiness that I was looking for,” Michaud said.
On one hand, the current popularity of fernet in America is hard to understand. Fernet, an aggressively bitter Italian liquor dating back hundreds of years, has flavors some have compared to Listerine and Robitussin. But if you’re at all familiar with the recent craft-distilling boom, it makes sense. The way Michaud sees it, American palates are becoming more sophisticated and adventurous.
Michaud first encountered fernet as a young man in his 20s when he was traveling in Europe. Having lunch in an idyllic village in Germany, he noticed a couple in their 70s at an adjacent table finishing their meal by tossing back two shots. Michaud was amazed. When he asked the couple what they were shooting in the middle of the day, their answer set him off on a journey to try as many fernets as he could.
Four years ago, when he opened Liquid Riot Bottling Co. (formerly known as In’finiti), Michaud knew from the start that he wanted to make his own fernet. He does so by steeping the long list of herbs and botanicals in neutral spirits (aka grain alcohol) – among them dandelion root, licorice root, spearmint, wild cherry bark, gentian root and myrrh gum – for six days, then aging the mixture for three months in Maine blueberry wine barrels.
I tried a snifter of Fernet Michaud with my wife after a dinner of grilled steak and asparagus – it’s traditionally drunk after a meal as a digestif. The minty medicinal aroma was apparent as soon as I opened the bottle, and one taste and I instantly understood the comparisons to mouthwash. Each sip of the 82-proof liquor cleared my sinuses.
But here’s the thing – it’s really refreshing. Fernet Michaud is a looping rollercoaster of menthol, black licorice, chamomile and, yes, Robitussin.
Find Fernet Michaud ($34.99 for a 750 ml bottle) at Liquid Riot’s Commercial Street tasting room as well as RSVP Discount Beverage and Old Port Spirits & Cigars.
Dave Patterson is a writer and musician from Cape Elizabeth.