In a recent episode of Anthony Bourdain's The Layover, he and famed English chef Fergus Henderson bond over a shot of something called Fernet Branca, seated at a London sidewalk café for an afternoon pick me-up.
"Steadying," Bourdain declares after shooting the dark brown, slightly ominous syrupy liquid. Curious as to the identity of this mysterious elixir that looked something like Jagermeister, I turned to Google for information. Wikipedia identified Fernet as an amaro, or bitter. An Italian herbal spirit typically served post-meal as a digestif, it's rumored to contain everything from psilocybin and codeine to fermented beets and wormwood; slightly more realistic guesses include aloe, rhubarb and saffron.
Similar to good ol' Colonel Sanders' blend of 11 herbs and spices, the actual ingredients of Fernet remain a closely guarded secret. It's produced in Italy by a distiller called Fratelli Branca, and was first concocted in 1845 and marketed as a health elixir, similar to the original Coca Cola. (Man, it must've been awesome to be a sickly person back in the mid-1800s; complain of menstrual cramps or a stomachache and you'd get a prescription for a magical potion containing cocaine or hard liquor.) These days many people still swear by Fernet as a hangover soother.
So what does it taste like? I can only describe the taste of Fernet as a sinister lovechild of Jagermeister and Rumpleminze: dark, bitter, medicinal, herbal, with a minty burn. An acquired taste, surely. In a city where craft cocktails are starting to become commonplace but Grey Goose and Patron still mostly reign supreme, I wondered, is anyone actually drinking this stuff?
On a recent visit to The Chesterfield, owner Lucky Campbell was more than happy to yap about Fernet for a bit. He explained that despite hailing from Italy, it's actually much more popular in Argentina (a country with a very large Italian population). A Fernet and Coke is practically their national drink. Trade routes from South America brought Fernet up through San Francisco, where it took a firm hold.
These days San Franciscans consume a whopping 35 percent of Fernet produced, the most popular delivery method being a straight shot chased with ginger ale. This is often referred to as a "bartender's handshake," a sort of secret bonding ritual often poured by bartenders for other bartenders to say hello or goodbye, viewed as either a friendly gesture or a dare, depending on your tastebuds. The popular R Bar, located in the notoriously seedy Tenderloin area of downtown San Fran, goes through over a hundred bottles a month.
By contrast, The Chesterfield sells maybe half a bottle a week (but goes through three -- read between the lines on that one). "People here in Dallas love sugary stuff like Tuaca, but we're slowly catching up with the coasts," Campbell told me. I asked him to make me a Fernet cocktail, interested to see how the intense liqueur would play with other ingredients.
He responded with The Revenge, a play on the classic Negroni -- Fernet, sweet vermouth, Campari and soda. Vivid orange-red in color and served over an abundance of crushed ice, it's a gentle way to acquaint yourself with the herbal bitterness that is Fernet.
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The bartender on duty at Black Swan (not Gabe) when I stopped in for a couple drinks recently admittedly didn't know much about Fernet. He said they'd had the same bottle since they opened, and he'd only ever seen one or two patrons order it -- always straight up. My questions inspired him to open the bottle for a sniff, and he recoiled in horror. "Why would anyone want to drink that?" wondered a tatted up guy a couple stools down.
Ian Reilly, the bartender on duty at The People's Last Stand, raised an eyebrow when I asked him about Fernet, having spotted a bottle amongst the hundreds of others along the back of their bar. He explained that ordering a shot of Fernet is a good way to get a bartender's attention, to show them that you're a serious cocktail enthusiast if you're getting brushed off.
As we talked, Reilly mixed me up a Silent Night, a recipe he came up with one night when the bar was especially quiet. A dangerously potent combination of Fernet, Luxardo maraschino liqueur, and Carpano Antica ("the granddaddy of sweet vermouths"), this drink is no joke and all alcohol, but the sweetness of the Luxardo and the vermouth tempers the Fernet's bitterness and allows the minty and herbal notes to come to the forefront.
Fernet is definitely an acquired taste, but it's worth a try if you're looking for a hair-of-the-dog remedy after a night of getting hammered, or trying to impress a bartender with your knowledge of obscure spirits. It probably won't be my new shot of choice, but next time I feel like one of these damn Dallas mixologists isn't taking me seriously, I might pull that trick out of my back pocket.