A visit to the Branca Museum and Distillery in Milan is a fascinating trip through the history of one of Italy’s legendary spirits and the entrepreneurial journey of a family that represents an excellence of Made in Italy.
You’ve probably noticed the iconic dark green bottle with the image of an eagle during your travels in Italy or on the shelves of cocktail bars. That’s a bottle of Fernet-Branca, one of Italy’s most popular amari (bitter liqueurs). What most people probably don’t know is that the Branca distillery is located in the center of Milan and can be visited for free. It’s in Via Resegone 2, within easy strolling distance from the “Maciachini” underground station (yellow line), which makes it a great addition to your Milanese itineraries.
I must say that the rather anonymous building exterior doesn’t do justice to the magic that happens inside. At 3:00 pm sharp we are greeted by Mr. Marco Ponzano, former head of Branca advertising and now in charge of the museum – he will be our guide for the afternoon!
A short elevator ride teleports us to the beginnings of the brand, more precisely to 1845, when Bernardino Branca and an alleged Swedish chemist known as Dr. Fernet created a magic formula that was sold as a medicine to cure cholera, fever, flatulence, and overeating. It was called Fernet-Branca. This herbal concoction could be found in pharmacies up until the 1940s and today a glass of Fernet-Branca continues to be a popular drink that helps digestion after a big meal. However, cocktails and aperitifs prepared with Fernet-Branca are growing in popularity, especially in certain countries.
This is no standard museum
Forget standard museums full of marketing tricks and super technological displays. The Branca Museum is a truly immersive experience in the world of the Branca brand. The museum shares the space with the corporate offices, so you’ll often see employees coming and going during your visit. The same employees that rummaged through the company’s archives and put together this exhibition under the coordination of Mr. Ponzano. It took them three years to finalize the project, which was unveiled in 2009.
Visiting the Branca Museum feels like walking inside a big home where the master of the house shows you all the family memorabilia. There are old tools, reproductions of rooms such as the on-site tailor’s laboratory and the director’s office, and even a splendid vintage car. Walls are covered with posters and calendars in pure Art Nouveau style, where female figures and the travel theme are central.
There is also an old accounting book listing the salaries of the employees, and Mr. Ponzano shows us the name of his nonno on one of the pages. At Branca, there are a lot of people who have been working for the company for generations and I must admit that seeing such affection and loyalty in an age ruled by redundancy schemes and digital nomadism is really powerful.
The secret recipe of Fernet-Branca
One of the highlights on display at the museum is the barrel showcasing the 27 herbs and spices used to produce Fernet-Branca. You are free to touch and smell each of them, but don’t ask questions about the recipe because that’s super secretive. Only the president of the company, Niccolò Branca, knows the exact proportions of each herb and personally mixes all the ingredients behind closed doors, before sending them to the production department.
We learn that throughout the years, many competitors have tried to replicate the magic formula of Fernet-Branca, but I was quite shocked to see the incredible collection of imitations displayed like trophies in an old cabinet. Mr. Ponzano explains that collecting imitations has become a sort of tradition for the company and nowadays some competitors don’t even try to hide their replicas anymore and send bottles directly to Mr. Branca!
The Branca Academy
Another highlight of the tour is the Branca Academy, a space where bartenders can attend specific specialization courses. Here Mr. Ponzano takes charge of the bar counter and offers us a glass of Fernet-Branca or other spirits produced by the company, such as Brancamenta (the minty version of Fernet), Caffè Borghetti (an espresso coffee liqueur) and Grappa Candolini.
Drinking a glass of this iconic amaro right where the magic formula is created is truly fascinating, though I must warn first-time drinkers that the taste is pretty strong and bitter. Just follow the three-sip rule and you’ll be fine – here they say that three sips allow you to fully appreciate the explosion of flavors that characterize this spirit.
Since the beginning, Branca distinguished itself for its innovative communication and exploring the rooms dedicated to advertising with Mr. Ponzano is a true privilege. Having led the brand’s advertising department, he has lots of interesting stories and “behind the scenes” to share, such as the story of the visuals for Grappa Candolini, where for the first time the image of a woman was used to advertise a strong spirit commonly associated with masculine consumers.
The very first advertisement dates back to 1865 and appeared on a newspaper called “La Perseveranza”, while the iconic logo with the eagle holding a bottle of Fernet-Branca while flying over the world was designed by Leopoldo Metlicovitz in 1895 – the same artist that created some of the posters for Puccini’s operas.
The Branca cellars
The visit continues in the cellars where the precious liquor is aged. We are told that there are 800 barrels in total, guarded by 5 employees that run from one to the other aboard bicycles. It’s a shame that we can’t see them in action, as they leave early on Friday afternoon.
One barrel, in particular, is not to be missed: the Mother Barrel. Dating back to 1892, this is one of the largest and oldest barrels in Europe, with a capacity of over 80,000 liters. It’s used to age the Stravecchio brandy.
How to visit the Branca Museum and Distillery
Museo Branca can be visited for free, with tours available every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 10:00 am and 3:00 pm (there are no tours in August). All you have to do is book a slot using the calendar available on the Branca Museum website. I’ve noticed that tours in English are pretty limited, so I recommend sending an email to email@example.com if you are interested.
Each tour can accommodate up to 25 people and lasts about 1 hour and 40 minutes – just be flexible because conversing with Mr. Ponzano is super interesting and my tour runs for over 2 hours!
How to drink Fernet-Branca
During the tour, I’ve learned that while in Italy Fernet-Branca is usually served as a post-meal digestive, it’s more and more common to see it used in various cocktail combinations. For example, Argentinians love their Fernet Branca mixed with Coke! And by the way, I had no clue that Fernet-Branca is so popular in Argentina – if there are any Argentinians reading this, please raise your hands, I’d like to know more!
Take a look at the Fernet-Branca website for a good list of cocktails, from the “Brancamilano”, which combines three of the company’s most iconic products, to the “Eva Peron” made with Vermouth and ginger beer.
READ MORE: “Hidden corners of Milan”
Have you ever tried Fernet? Let me know in the comments below!
A super hug from Italy,