2 oz rye whiskey
¼ oz Fernet Branca
2 dashes Angostura bitters
lemon or orange peel for garnish, optional
Stir and serve straight up in a chilled coupe or stemmed cocktail glass. Express and garnish with the lemon/organe peel, if using.
Are you a fan of whiskey and fernet? Well then, allow me to introduce you to your new favorite cocktail. The Toronto is basically an Old Fashioned with a bit of fernet. But that little bit pulls the drink in a deliciously new and bittersweet direction.
For those who've tried it, fernet (pronounced fur-NET, or in an Italian accent, fair-NAY ) needs no introduction. If you were to convert the word intense into a flavor, this is what it would probably taste like. It's a style of amaro that's dark, herbaceous and penetratingly bitter. But in the Toronto it comes off surprisingly balanced, adding an intriguing menthol-y undercurrent but still allowing the whiskey to be the star of the show.
Usually when it comes to classic whiskey cocktails, I refrain from recommending using rye or bourbon (read about the difference here) and leave it to the bartender's preference. But in this case, I think it's important to use rye. Not that bourbon wouldn’t be tasty, it is. But the Toronto was originally constructed around a spicy rye flavor profile, either from American rye or Canadian whiskey, which I think is needed to stands up to the ferent. I prefer to use American rye, but some Canadian whiskys will certainly work too. More on the differences between the two is across the page.
The History of the Toronto Cocktail
The Toronto’s first appearance in a cocktail book by name was in David Embury’s 1948 “The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks”, though it has some relatives that came before.
In Hugo Ensslin’s 1916 “Recipes for Mixed Drinks” (a wonderful book with great recipes, even by today’s standards) he lists a King Cole Cocktail which is bourbon based, plus dashes of fernet, sugar syrup and garnished with an orange and a pineapple. Then in Robert Vermiere’s 1922 “Cocktails and How To Mix Them” (which also contains the first recipe for a Side Car) a Fernet Cocktail appears which has equal parts fernet and either rye or, interestingly, Cognac. He also adds a dash of Angostura bitters and a lemon peel and notes that “this cocktail is much appreciated by the Canadian of Toronto”. We’re getting somewhere. Harry Croddock’s 1930 Savoy Cocktail Book, which is largely cherry-picked recipes from other cocktail books, also lists the King Cole Cocktail which is almost identical to Ensslin’s, but calls for rye instead of bourbon.
Embury's recipe, which is the most referenced, is a hybrid of these drinks and keeps the best elements of each. It’s whiskey forward (he calls for Canadian whisky) like the King Cole but has the dash of bitters and citrus peel (orange in his case) like the Fernet Cocktail. But I think Embury’s most crucial contribution is certainly the name, which, in spirit of the Manhattan, has the feel of a timeless classic.
From there the Toronto followed the same path that befell most cocktails of this era. It faded into a cloud of anonymity through the 1960s and 70s, then was resurrected by a curious bartender around the turn of the millennium. In this instance, that cocktail paleontologist was Jamie Boudreau, a big name in the modern cocktail landscape and known for his Seattle bar, Canon, which has a massive collection of spirits including more American whiskies than anywhere in the world. Boudreau grew up in Canada but interestingly, as he notes in his 2006 blog on the Toronto, Fernet was not distributed there (which has certainly changed in the years since) so it wasn’t until he moved to the U.S. that he encountered it, and thus the Toronto itself.
The Toronto has since been embraced by the bar community as a vintage gem, and in the wake of Fernet’s ascent as a favorite bartender shot and growing interest in amaro in general, it's star has only continued to rise.
Fernet is a loosely defined style of amaro (Italian bitter liqueur) of which Fernet Branca is by far the most common brand. There are no specific regulations one must follow to make fernet, just a conventionally agreed upon theme. They tend to be higher in alcohol than other amaros (Branca is 40%), have a bold assertive bitterness, and contain some or all of the following botanicals: mint, myrrh, chamomile, cardamom, aloe, gentian and, particularly, saffron.
I’ll admit the first time I had fernet, I was not a fan. It thought it tasted like Listerine. But the cheerful enthusiasm from those drinking it with me - all of them experienced fernet drinkers - vastly outweighed how much I may or may not have enjoyed it. And of crouse, eventually, I grew to love it, as most do.
Fernet is an unmatched digestif. If you find yourself reeling after over-indulging on rich, decadent fare (this past at Christmas after I went to town on brie and chicken liver mousse comes to mind) an ounce of fernet will instantly right the ship. It’s also delicious with Coca Cola.
As I said above, while Branca is the most common brand, and what most people associate with fernet. Though the market is expanding and there are now at least 20 or so fernets available, many of them from craft producers. I haven’t tried enough of them to make recommendations with confidence, I generally stick with Branca out of habit. But as I write this, I'm looking forward to digging into the category more. I encourage you to go forth and explore. Feel free to report back any findings!
Want more fernet backstory? Check out this article on Alcademics.com.
Canadian Rye vs American Rye
As I said above, Canadian Whisky (they spell it with no “e”) is broadly known for having a spicy rye flavor profile. So much so, Canadian whisky is sometimes broadly referred to as rye (like in Mad Men, for example). But Canadian and American rye whiskeys are not the same. Each country's regulations differ on how they define them, and the details are a bit confusing.
In the United States, a rye whiskey needs to have at least 51% of rye grain in the mashbill. With Canadian whisky there’s actually no guidelines how much or how little rye must be used, if any. This is because their process is built around blending, similar to blended scotch and many Irish whiskeys. Most Canadian whisky is a blend of a lighter whisky called the base whisky, and a fuller bodied whisky called the flavoring whisky. The base whisky makes up the bulk of a blend, they are predominantly made from corn, distilled to high proofs and don’t have a ton of flavor. The flavoring whiskys are typically richer in rye (but not always), distilled to lower proofs, and provide the whisky with that spicy backbone people associate with Canadian whisky. But how much flavoring whisky is used and what it's made from is up to the producer.
Estimates are that most Canadian whisky contains around 5-15% rye. But it could be none at all. Even more puzzling, in Canada a whiskey could be labeled as rye, even if it doesn’t contain any rye. Their food and drug regulations stipulate that “Canadian Whisky, Canadian Rye Whisky or Rye Whisky” must be made from “a mash of cereal grain or cereal grain products”. So it could be corn, wheat, or whatever. That being said, in the U.S. rye-less Canadian whisky cannot be labeled as rye. So here at least that confusion is avoided.
But I'm not here to defame Canada and their whisky. This isn't a clean apples to apples comparison. There are a number of factors at play. For one, Americans combine all the grains before mashing, whilst Canadians make multiple whiskeys from separate grains then blend them, so the percentage of rye isn't measured in the same way. Additionally, Davin de Kergommeaux of the website canadianwhisky.org asserts in this article that the rye in Canada tastes different saying “rye grown on the fringes of cultivation...” (that is, up in Cananda) “...is a lot spicier than that grown in more southerly climes.” Suggesting that a little Canadian rye goes a long way. The two whiskeys may not be apples and oranges, but they’re at least Granny Smith Apples and Gala Apples, still pretty darn different.
Concurrently, thanks to the renewed interest in rye whiskey, many Canadian whisky producers are focussing on bottlings with a higher rye content and saying so on their label. Lot 40 is one great example. It's 100 % rye and fairly well circulated in the U.S. Another good one is Crown Royal Northern Harvest rye, which is 90% rye.
So while I wouldn’t use just any whisky from Canada in a cocktail that calls for rye (coughCanadianClubcough!), I fully endorse true Canadian ryes. They’re a different animal, but one well worth getting acquainted with.