What I'm Drinking: Fernet Branca (1 cube) Ice Water
Every bar has its own culture—a philosophy on how guests should be treated, how the bar itself is set up, how the cocktails are made, how employees interact with each other, and a million other details. As bartenders and other staff come and go, they absorb these details, then spread this culture to other bars in their region and sometimes beyond.
An interesting example of this is the renewed popularity of amari—a type of Italian bitter spirits—in cocktails, and the rise of one particular amaro as the shot of choice for bartenders in New York. I'm talking about Fernet Branca, the long-standing darling of San Francisco barkeepers and, increasingly, those of us on the other side of the country as well.
Among bartenders, a shot is a kind of ritualized handshake. We might share a shot as a greeting, a farewell, or a general celebration of being in the same place at the same time. In this context, taking a shot has very little to do with drinking or its effects—instead, it's an acknowledgement of membership in a community.
For years in New York, the shot of choice for bartenders was Jameson Irish Whiskey, a trend so common across enough different types of bars that I considered it part of the bartending culture as a whole. Sometime in the last few years, Fernet Branca has started to threaten Jameson's status as the go-to bottle when a round of shots is in order.
Fernet is at once bitter, sweet, herbacious and spicy. It's an unappealing dark brown color, with a hint of green when held up to the light. The aroma is an aggressive melange of spices. Fernet Branca tastes just as sweet, intense, and bitter as its nose promises. When first presented with a shot, my only thought was, "Why would anyone do this to themselves on purpose?"
Fernet is flavored with gentian, saffron, chamomile, bitter orange, and grip of other herbs and spices. Each of these botanicals is macerated separately, blended together, then aged for twelve months in a barrel to marry the flavors. The interplay of this marriage is difficult to describe. If Fernet Branca were a song, it would be performed by Rob Zombie, Gilian Welch, and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. If it were a book, it would be written by Beatrix Potter, Oscar Wilde, and the Marquis de Sade.
For the uninitiated, a shot of Fernet is not an entirely pleasant experience. The combination of sweet, bitter, and spice is difficult to brace yourself for, and first-timers sometimes act as if the shot-giver has just done something horrible to them. Some people never learn to love it. When I told my wife I was writing about Fernet, she said, "Are you talking about how gross it is?" She considers my love of the amaro a character flaw that isn't necessarily my fault, as if I was captured by the Italian army, and still suffer from Stockholm Syndrome.
She might be right. I was not an instant convert to the flavor. I used to dread the moment I would walk into a bar and be greeted with a tiny glass of black sludge that tasted like mouthwash with delusions of grandeur. Eventually, my colleagues' enthusiasm for the experience wore me down, and I started drinking Fernet on its own. I learned to like it to the point that now, if I'm not drinking whiskey, I will most likely be sipping a dram of Fernet Branca with a cube of ice.
When I am working behind the stick, I notice when someone orders a shot of Fernet. When they do, I can generally assume that they are a fellow traveler, someone in the spirits game in some form or another, which sparks a different kind of conversation.
If Fernet falls short of being a secret-handshake for barkeepers, it can be a calling card of sorts. Regardless of who you are or why you drink it, if you're willing to put yourself through the experience of a shot of Fernet Branca, odds are I might have one with you.