The Barfly Report: Riding the New Wave of Chile's Long Lost Answer to Fernet

Short, stout, and wearing a twentieth century golf hat to cover his scraggly white hair, Emilio Brusco-Englebach and I sit in his Valparaiso office as he points above him to indicate a plaque on the wall. Flanked by two miniature mounted deer heads is an award from the 1911 Turin Italy International Exposition for the Best Fernet in the World. The winner, Brusco-Englebach’s grandfather, had traveled over 7,000 miles from Chile to bring his New World recipe to the Expo. Not long after, he returned home with the blue ribbon in hand. Today, Brusco-Englebach's desk is piled high with papers ranging from the day’s invoices to a leather-bound book from the early 1900s containing the family’s secret recipes.
Chile is not well known for amari--dark, bitter, syrupy liqueurs made famous by Italians. And yet the Brusco family has been at the center of Chile’s amaro production for well over a century, and it is finally re-emerging into the nation’s cocktail scene.

 photo by Tres Torres
photo by Tres Torres

Amaro bitters were originally lauded for their semi-medicinal purpose, as a bajativo after meals to aid digestion. The amari that Brusco-Englebach produces today in his family’s original factory were developed to incorporate endemic Chilean ingredients, often using knowledge from Mapuche herbalists. Every product, ranging from a Strega (a saffron and mint liqueur) to Fernet (a bitter liqueur finding its way into trendy bar scenes internationally) utilizes Chile’s unique flavors such as Araucano evergreens. Though European immigrants may have been looking to recreate their home in a distant land, they ended up creating an incredible fusion of cultures, manufacturing liqueurs that are uniquely Chilean in the Italian tradition.

The Brusco family (Emilio Brusco-Englebach’s grandfather and great uncle) emigrated from a small town outside of Genoa in Northern Italy in the early 1900s. His grandfather, Virgilio Brusco, first arrived in Buenos Aires. Not favoring the humid Porteño climate, the brothers continued on to Chile and eventually settled outside of Santiago in the coastal town of Valparaiso. According to Brusco-Englebach, the family first founded a silk factory in town, but eventually opted change the family business and bring the family’s popular Fernet recipe to the masses.

 photo by Tres Torres
photo by Tres Torres

At the turn of the last century, Valparaiso enjoyed its golden hour as a prosperous port city connecting the continents. Full of Spanish, Italian, German, and English immigrants, the city resembled a grandiose French beach town. According to Brusco-Englebach, “the Italian community was able to recreate the lifestyle from back in the old country as closely as possible in Valparaiso." At the time, the Brusco family was not the only producer of amaro, but as Valparaiso endured a long, slow economic unraveling, so too, did the popularity of amaro. The Brusco family became the only producer able to weather the economic storm, so as brands went under, the Bruscos began to buy them out and grow production using their original recipes.

Emilio Brusco-Englebach speaks passionately about the current resurgence of interest in Chilean food and drink with the inclusion of his signature amaro. “With Chile’s amazing resources and products, we are finally beginning to embrace and grow the national gastronomy,” he says. The beverage industry has experienced a similar renaissance with the growth of the craft cocktail scene. Brusco-Englebach is delighted not only with the cocktail craze, but also with the reemergence of the position of bartender as a respected profession, instead of as just a side job. Almost every bar in Santiago these days has a couple bottles of Arucano or Brusco Fernet on the shelf, so the next time you’re out check it out, and have a sip of Chilean history.

 photo by Tres Torres
photo by Tres Torres

Some of the Brusco Family Liquors include:

Araucano: A dark bitter digestivo with heavy coca leaf, chocolate and banana undertones

Fernet: A syrupy, minty, and herbal heavy liqueur

Bitter Rojo: Bright red bitter and complex liqueur flavored with gentian root

Bottles of each of these can be found at bars and liquor stores around Chile and retail for approximately CLP$6500 or US$10

Cocktail Recommendations:

10oz Pipeño (Strong Sweet White Wine)
1 Large Scoop of Pineapple Ice Cream
1.5oz Fernet Floated on Top
Fill a pint glass with the chilled Pipeño wine. Add ice cream and begin to stir until a milkshake-like consistency. Float the Fernet on top and serve with a bendy straw.

Stormy Santiago
8oz Spicy Ginger Beer
3oz of Araucano
Lime Wedge to Garnish
Fill a Collins glass with ice and ginger beer. Drop in the Araucano and mix with a bar spoon or chopstick, moving up and down as to mix the drink without taking out all of the ginger beer’s carbonation. Garnish with lime.

Brusco Negroni
1oz Gin
1oz Bitter Rojo (similar to Campari)
1oz Sweet Vermouth
Orange Peel to Garnish
Fill a cocktail shaker with the three liquors, add in several ice cubes and stir vigorously in a clockwise motion for twenty seconds. Strain into a rocks glass and add several fresh ice cubes. Garnish with an orange peel twist.

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