Fernet, an amaro, or Italian bitter, is one of those ingredients that’s been around forever, yet finds its way into few cocktails, at least few of the classics. Recent popularity of amaro in general has brought some of the dusty old bottles back in favor, along with some of the forgotten classics, like the Toronto, which features fernet and Canadian whiskey.
The Toronto is a 20th century cocktail. Some stories place the first pairing of whiskey and fernet in the 1800s, which is very likely, but the first, and most cited record comes from David Embury in the 1948 publication, Fine Art of Mixing Drinks, but some variants are noted from even earlier. Embury does call for Canadian whiskey in his Toronto, but references from the 1920s call for cognac, or rye whiskey. We’ll leave the debate of whiskey variety, and whether or not the 20s version is actually a Toronto to others, but there is a note in the 1920s reference mentioning the Canadians of Toronto and their taste for this cocktail.
Sure enough, that reference to the Canadians in Toronto comes from north of the border, and could, indeed, be the origin of the Toronto, but it’s most likely a New York drink, if not created there, then popularized there. Both, however, are valid claims. In the 1920s, Toronto saw an influx of Italian immigrants who would have brought some luxuries, such as fernet, with them. This could account for the mix of fernet and rye, Canadian whiskey at the time was rye, or rye heavy whiskey, but the same could be said for New York. New York saw immigration from Italy before Toronto, so it’s really anybody’s guess. We favor the Toronto, Canada story for empirical reasons. America was dry in the 1920s, and if a cocktail called for rye, well, where would it come from, and why, after prohibition and a world war, would the author of the book call for Candian whiskey specifically? We feel the Toronto is a carry over cocktail, invented and popularized with the whiskey available, then rediscovered and adapted to a post war world. Then it was forgotten again.
Over the last ten years or so the Toronto has appeared on more and more cocktail menus, and is once again a well known drink, however, it’s not the easiest or at all forgiving thanks to the fernet. Rich and sporting the color of coffee or dark caramel, fernet is a strong, exceptionally bitter liqueur that easily dominates anything you mix with it. It’s like a weed. Before you know it, it’s the dominant feature in the garden, so stay on top of it, but don’t be afraid of it. Fernet is complex, like black tea with gentian root, or some other bittering agent, and an array of herbal qualities that come with a whole cough medicine quality because that’s what it originally was. Like many old liqueurs and libations, fernet was medicine, and, if you taste it neat, you may very well agree, but don’t put the glass down. Sipped neat, fernet will reward you with something you can savor, even if in no way sweet or easy, but also requires a restrained hand when mixing with anything.
For our Toronto we use Townshend’s Pacific Northwest Fernet, an award winning representation of the Italian tradition. It’s as bitter and bracing as you would expect, and when mixed with Snake River Stampede Canadian Whiskey from Rose City Distilling it either compliments or dominates, but nothing in between. We use very little, just 1/4 ounce, and even less sugar. The Toronto is more Sazerac than Manhattan, or Old Fashioned, so sweet is not the order of the day. It’s all about the fernet, and what it can bring out of quality Canadian whiskey when only slightly sweetened and finished with a few dashes of aromatic bitters. As an experiment, try a Toronto with a quality rye whiskey, such as James Oliver Rye, also from Rose City Distilling and notice how the character changes. In any case, the Toronto is a classic that’s also a modern classic, rediscovered at least twice, and, whether actually from Toronto or not, is an almost perfect after dinner drink or night cap.
Stir with ice and serve up. Garnish with an orange twist.
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