Fernet, a blend of booze and botanicals, is the liquid equivalent of a sucker punch; a hit of bitter you don't see coming until your mouth is puckering and you're cursing the bartender who slid the glass across the rail. But once the sting goes away, you start to taste what's under the bitter: layers of black licorice, tobacco and saffron, with a hint of sweet before a menthol finish. And you realize: This stuff is good.
Upgrade that to great with the launch of Fernet-Dogma, a Midwestern twist on the traditionally Italian spirit. Bartenders Alex Renshaw, Clint Rogers and Brian Sturgulewski of The Dogma Group, the team behind the bar menus at spots like Presidio, Bordel and The Dawson, partnered with CH Distillery to create their own version, now on sale by the bottle ($38) and pour ($9) at CH (564 W. Randolph St., 312-707-8780).
"Most fernets on the market are similar, so we thought it would be cool to start with some of the traditional elements — lemon peel, chamomile, eucalyptus, saffron — but go a little different," Renshaw says. Inspired by the Italian custom of pairing fernet with espresso, "we ended up with a coffee fernet, using Dark Matter coffee and botanicals from Rare Tea Cellar in Ravenswood. It's all local."
To help the coffee flavor pop, they rested the spirit in Four Roses bourbon barrels for a month before bottling.
"Dark Matter works really well because their coffee has this chocolatey quality, which is a nice back note to that initial bitterness of the fernet," Sturgulewski says. "The master distiller at CH worked really hard on it to make sure it was balanced; that you don't taste it and say, 'Wow, this is incredibly bitter!' and there's nothing else going on. It's complex."
Drink Fernet-Dogma straight, or add it to cocktails; Bordel (1721 W. Division St., 773-227-8600) has a drink on the menu using pisco, coconut liqueur, lime juice and "a little bit of the fernet," Renshaw says.
"It's seductive," Sturgulewski adds.
*This article originally appeared in the Chicago Tribune, July 20, 2015 written by Marissa Conrad