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Cheers! A salute to the restaurant and bar workers we miss

Lester Graham
Michigan Radio
Tammy Coxen measures some Fernet Branca, the bartender's handshake, for a Toronto.
Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Ingredients to make the Toronto.

There's a bracing herbal, minty, chocolaty, funky, bitter Italian liqueur (an amaro) called Fernet Branca. It became wildly popular among people who work at bars. It's often used in cocktails, but if you're a bartender visiting another bar, your colleague might pour you a shot as a greeting, a bartender's handshake. During these days of the COVID-19 pandemic, let's call it a "bartender's elbow bump."

"If the bartender really likes you as a customer, they might pour you a Fernet shot. If you've never had a Fernet shot, just be warned. You might think they hate you, but they actually love you," explained Tammy Coxen of Tammy's Tastings

As I mentioned, it is bracing.

In honor of those in the restaurant and bar industry, Tammy decided to share the Toronto with us. It's a twist on the Old Fashioned, the original cocktail.

"We are making this today kind of in solidarity for all the folks in the restaurant and bar industry who are really struggling right now," Tammy said.

It's really rough with restaurants closed to dine-in customers and bars closed.

The Toronto is one of my favorite cocktails and one of the very first I learned to make at one of Tammy's cocktail classes about eight years ago. My first sip of a Toronto reminded me of the aroma you might get from a cedar cigar box. 

It's rare that I can look at the bottles on the counter where Tammy mixes drinks and immediately know what she's going to mix. I did this time. A bottle of Long Road Distillers Straight Rye Whisky, a bottle of Fernet Branca, Angostura Bitters, and an orange.

"Even though this is called Toronto, I wouldn't use most Canadian whiskeys," Tammy said, adding, "Any American rye whiskey works really well here." 

You can use a Canadian rye whiskey if you can find one.


Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Pouring Long Road Straight Rye Whisky in a mixing vessel to make the Toronto.

2 oz rye whiskey 

1/4 oz simple syrup (equal parts water and sugar)

1/4 oz Fernet Branca

2 dashes Angostura Bitters

Garnish: orange peel

Add liquid ingredients to a mixing vessel. Add ice. Stir long enough to dilute and chill. Strain into a coupe or martini glass. Express the oils from the orange peel and drop peel into the glass.

That first Tammy's Tastings cocktail class I took was called "Stirred, not Shaken." As the class learned that night, if there are no cloudy ingredients, the drink should be stirred.

"That's right. No citrus in here. So you want to stir it with ice for a good long time, even though this is kind of a riff on an old fashioned it's not served on the rocks," Tammy said. "You want to make sure that it's as cold as you want it to be when you are finished making it, because it'll never get any colder after that."

When I took a sip, it definitely was the Toronto I remembered. I mentioned to Tammy that I find it a really comforting drink.

"You might be the only person to ever describe Fernet as comforting," she responded. 

To me the Toronto is a reminder that so many of the folks that we turn to for these lovely drinks and for the great food that we're all probably missing right now are having a hard time. 

"Now, more than ever, I think those of us who are mixing drinks and cooking at home can recognize the work that the cooks and the bartenders and the dishwashers, especially the dishwashers, do in restaurants and bars. So, yeah, our hearts go out to all of you," Tammy said.

There are a lot of relief funds being made available to help them make it through this period. 

Cheers to all our friends we miss.

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Lester Graham reports for The Environment Report. He has reported on public policy, politics, and issues regarding race and gender inequity. He was previously with The Environment Report at Michigan Radio from 1998-2010.
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