The Toronto is a classic rye whiskey cocktail that features the bitter liqueur Fernet Branca. Similar to an Old Fashioned, the Toronto is made with whiskey, simple syrup, Angostura bitters, and the addition of a splash of Fernet.
History of the cocktail
Like many classics, the history of the Toronto is up for debate. No one seems to really know if the drink originated in Toronto, Ontario, or why it was named for the city.
In 1922, this whiskey and Fernet drink made its first appearance in print in the book Cocktails – How to Mix Them by Robert Vermeire. Printed as the Fernet Cocktail, the recipe listed a measure of either cognac or rye whiskey as the primary spirit.
According to Difford’s Guide, Vermeire’s book included a note regarding the recipe which stated that the drink was “appreciated by the Canadians of Toronto.”
In 1948, David A. Embury’s classic cocktail book The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks lists the drink for the first time as the Toronto cocktail.
An Old Fashioned riff
Some say that the Toronto is a riff on the Manhattan, which makes sense in theory since both drinks are named for cities.
However, I agree much more with those who say it’s a variation on the classic Old Fashioned. And I much prefer to serve it like an Old Fashioned, on the rocks, rather than up in a cocktail glass. A large cube keeps things ice cold and adds a pleasant level of dilution.
The Toronto adds a quarter ounce of Fernet Branca to the basic Old Fashioned template: 2 ounces whiskey, ¼ oz simple syrup, 2 dashes bitters. That really small amount of Fernet creates a flavorful and unique drink that has an underlying bittersweetness while preserving and enhancing the flavors of the rye.
Fernet Branca: the polarizing bitter liqueur
Probably more than any other, Fernet Branca is a pretty divisive liqueur. It seems that folks either really enjoy it, or find it completely repulsive. I think I’m somewhere in the middle. I have heard many say that it has an intensely bitter flavor, but I don’t find it all that bitter at all.
When you compare Fernet to a liqueur like Campari, it’s only mildly bitter. But what is pronounced is a minty, strongly herbal, licorice-like flavor.
Fernet Branca is boldly flavored and polarizing, but it’s not overly bitter. For this reason, I find that when used in small amounts, as a cocktail “seasoning”, it can be enjoyed by wide range of people.
I honestly don’t often use Fernet in my own recipes, but the Toronto is still one of my all time favorite classic cocktails. It has just the right balance of flavor, strength, and ‘je ne sais quoi’ thanks to that unusual liqueur.
How to make a perfect Toronto
The Toronto is a stirred cocktail and it benefits from a good long stir for proper dilution and chill. Add your whiskey, Fernet, simple syrup, and bitters to a mixing glass, then add ice. You should fill the glass about three quarters.
Next, use a bar spoon to stir the liquid about 30 times. It takes some patience, but a long stir will make for a great Toronto.
Strain your cocktail using a hawthorne or julep strainer into a rocks glass with one large cube.
Finally, peel a wide swath of orange peel and squeeze the peel between two fingers to express the orange oils over the drink. Garnish with the peel, or discard it, it’s up to you.
Note: some prefer to serve their Torontos up, in a cocktail glass. If you are a Manhattan drinker or you generally your spirit-forward cocktails served up, go for it! I personally don’t drink mine quick enough, so I like ice to lengthen the chill.
Garnish with flair
Make sure to express the orange peel’s oils over your cocktail before enjoying it. This small detail actually makes a huge difference in the taste and aroma of the final drink. Find plenty of garnish inspiration in my Guide to Citrus Peel Garnishes.
You may also enjoy these other whiskey cocktails:
Toronto Rye and Fernet Branca Cocktail
- 2 oz rye whiskey
- ¼ oz Fernet Branca
- ¼ oz simple syrup
- 2 dashes Angostura bitters
- Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass and fill it 3/4 with ice.
- Stir until well-chilled, about 30 times.
- Strain the liquid into a rocks glass over a large ice cube.
- Garnish with an expressed orange peel.