Toronto is by and large a charming city full of friendly people, the kind of place that honors a beaver with the kind of people who would apologize to you if you hit them with your car. The Toronto cocktail, on the other hand, is dark and intense and aggressive like a roaring elk. Toronto is what would happen if you took a sip of rye whiskey straight from the bottle and thought to yourself, “too soft,” the fluid translation, perhaps, of the city’s winter weather. It is also resolutely delicious, and one of the best answers of all time to the desire for one last drink on a cold evening. Whether you will like it just depends on how much you read bitterness as punishment, and whether that kind of punishment is something you enjoy.
In 1922, a Belgian bartender working in London named Robert Vermeire wrote a short recipe book with the pretty everyday title Cocktails: How to mix them. His book is unusual for the era, trying to credit the inventor of the drinks in it whenever possible. For many of these drinks, however, the inventor is unknown, so Vermeire fills in just a little context. To the Fernet Cocktail, for example – a blend of Fernet Branca, a touch of sugar, a few drops of bitter and either “Cognac Brandy or Rye Whiskey to taste” – he adds as a pedigree, “This cocktail is much appreciated by Canadians in Toronto. “
Cognac or rye? Recipes are instructions, and instructions hate ambiguity, so by 1930, Fernet Cocktail was split. “Cocktail” Bill Boothby’s World Drinks and How to Mix Them has two otherwise identical drinks, both with Fernet Branca, a touch of sugar and a few drops of bitter – Fernet Cocktail, which is now required to use brandy, and Toronto, which uses whiskey. It repeats itself even more when David Embury gets his fingers in it in 1948, who decides that because it’s called a Toronto, the whiskey must be Canadian (Embury was also the one who thought the French 75, which is “French,” should use cognac, a light observation that resonates to this day). Even later, an unnamed commentator claims that because it is from Canada, the sweetness must be maple syrup. This helps take into account the dizzying selection of easily customized recipes out there. We should consider ourselves lucky that no one tried to dress it in denim and a warm hat.
“The Toronto cocktail is probably one of the best uses of Fernet Branca I’ve discovered to date,” Canadian bartender Jamie Boudreau wrote in 2006. Boudreau had immigrated to Seattle and would continue to open the iconic Canon, but on at that time he had immigrated to Seattle. an early leader and author of the cocktail renaissance. He discovered Toronto in Embury’s book and immediately had the good sense to use rye whiskey when he saw that Toronto is essentially an old-fashioned spiced with the dark and bitter Fernet Branca.
So to sum up, this is a cocktail created by a Belgian working in London, using an Italian liqueur and called “Toronto” by an American. “It’s quite ironic,” Boudreau wrote, “that I had to leave Canada for the United States to discover the Toronto cocktail.” In fairness to him, however, there is nothing Canadian about it.
- 2 oz Rye Whiskey
- 0.5 oz white Fernet
- 1 harsh (1 teaspoon) simple syrup
Add ingredients to a stone glass with the largest ice cream you have that fits. Stir for 6-10 seconds, and garnish with an orange peel.
COMMENTS ON INGREDIENTS
Fernet: This is one of those recipes where the proportions change depending on who you ask. Most will say they use 0.25 oz Fernet, which adds a subtle mint spice to the finish, while some use 0.75 oz, which has all the subtleties of an air battle. I like to split the difference – at 0.5 oz, it’s more than just an old-fashioned accent that retains a distinct character without becoming too much.
As for which Fernet-Fernet Branca was the first and created the category Fernet, and is named after the recipe. Some cocktails that call on Fernet Branca really need the special fingerprint of that brand to work, but Toronto is not one of them – you can use one of dozens, maybe hundreds, of different types of Fernet, and they will all be good. Use any Fernet you like.
Rye: I have not had a style of Rye that I have not liked this one with, but if I had to pick a favorite, it would be the same style that I like best for Old Fashioneds, which is high-proof Kentucky- the style – the fill of Wild Turkey 101 or Russell’s Reserve is amazing here. It has to be big and bold to stand up to Fernet. Some people talk about using bourbon, but for me, bourbon wants excitement and spice. And if you insist on using Canadian whiskey, use one that is 100 percent rye, like Lot 40. Things like the Canadian Club are too soft.
It is also worth noting: The above recommendations are if you are using 0.5 oz or more Fernet. If you end up reducing Fernet Branca to 0.25 oz, as many recipes recommend, your base drink options will increase – it does not have to dig that much in to stand up to Fernet, so I would still advise rye, but you can really use whatever rye you want.
Simple syrup: Fernet Branca has some sugar, but not much, and a Toronto without simple syrup is evil as hell. Also ignore suggestions for maple syrup instead of simple syrup. It just adds noise. (To make simple syrup: Combine equal parts sugar and hot water, and stir for about 30 seconds until the sugar is dissolved. Store it in the refrigerator, then keep it for a month.)
Bitter: The original recipe calls for “two drops” of Angostura Bitters, and many modern recipes follow suit. My recipe above does not. Bitter turns the Fernete into almost being gingerbread-like, which is different and not bad, but they also disturb the mint-like fireworks on the finish. To me, they take more away than they add.
Glassware: I honestly can not decide if I prefer this on the rocks or up. Almost all recipes require it to be served, which is really great – the herbaceousness develops when it warms up, which is cool, but the sweetness needs to be pretty precise so as not to start being a problem. On ice, sweetness is not a problem because it stays cold and loosens up with more dilution, but you lose a little bit of the herbal charm. Everything has trade-offs. If I had to choose, I would say that server this as an old-fashioned on ice, but up is also great. Try both and make the one you like best.
Decoration: Boudreau notes that “the orange peel is a must as it helps to light up an otherwise dark drink,” and I could not agree more. Lemon peel also works for brightness, but orange peel is friendlier.