The Allure of Fernet Branca

05Mar09

I remember my first time.

It was November 2007. My friends are I got together to have a nice dinner at The Public, a restaurant in the 11th Street Corridor that unfortunately has since closed down. It was the Holidays, and we were enjoying great company, food, and drinks. Until it happened.

The bartender came up to the loft and asked who knew their beers. Naturally I raise my hand to the challenge. He rattles off beer after beer, and I successfully name where each beer is from. My prize? A shot with the bartenders.

He pulled out the bottle and poured a shot of this dark brown syrup and I immediately thought, “What the fuck?” He then went on to tell me that it’s an industry drink, and that all the bartenders in San Francisco drink this stuff. I took the shot and I immediately thought the bartender had just poisoned me. I gagged at the disgusting, medicine drink and tried my best to man up. I had just been deferginized. 

Fernet Branca is a bitter Italian apertif that is said to cure anything from hangovers, cholera, upset stomachs, headaches, and even the common cold. What makes it so alluring is not it’s magical cure-all tendencies, but the fact that no one knows exactly what’s in it, except the Branca family, who would die before giving up the recipe.  Of the 40 different herbs and spices, there are a few that are widely accepted – starting with grape distilled alcohol, it also includes chamomile, myrrh, aloe, cardamon, and saffron. The Branca family actually controls the high market price for saffron (which is around $900 per pound), because they account for 75% of the world’s consumption of the spice. 

San Francisco’s respect and obsession for the stuff is no secret. The city accounts for half of the United States’ consumption and the highest consumption per capita than any other city in the entire world. The only other locale that drinks as much Fernet is Argentina, where they typically drink it mixed with cola, as opposed to the preferred way in San Francisco, which is a straight shot with a ginger ale chaser. 

When in Argentina

When in Argentina

Though Fernet has always been a popular underground drink in the city, it’s recent explosion in popularity is attributed to the younger generation. Originally only consumed by the older Italian generation in North Beach, Fernet started circulating and gaining popularity among bartenders and chefs. It was seen as a rite of passage for newbies behind the bar or in the kitchen. Having a shot with your bartender was seen as being included into an exclusive club for all the cool kids, and it’s popularity spread throughout all the restaurants and bars in the city. It developed a cult-like status among those in the know, as everyone wanted to be a part of the scene.

Fernet drinkers in the city come from all walks of life and no neighborhood is left out of the circle. Mission hipsters pound shots of it while hopping between dive bars, FiDi suits sip on it from a snifter after finishing a lavish meal, Haight kids pound it all night and miraculously wake up without a hangover, and the Hayes Valley theater crowd enjoys a drink after the show. Fernet is for everyone, given a chance. More like a few chances.

When in San Francisco

When in San Francisco

It’s definitely an acquired taste, so if you’ve had it once and vowed never to drink it again, give it another chance and really appreciate the bitter and complex flavors that differentiate it from the disgusting sugary palettes that most Americans are accustomed to, and you may be surprised.

Since that fateful day in November 2007 when I became one of the initiated, I have been enjoying Fernet and introducing it to friends in hopes of expanding the inner circle. So if  I ever offer you a shot of Fernet, accept my invitation as I welcome you to the club.

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One Response to “The Allure of Fernet Branca”

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