You may have heard that I’ve been doing some research on Fernet, which is basically San Francisco’s default shot. It was a tough job, but I have some results for you. First off, I can tell you that Fernet is not an acquired taste. By that I mean no one I’ve talked to seems to actually have acquired a liking for the stuff. It’s more like a habit. This is, however, entirely understandable. As I discovered first hand this weekend, the second shot of Fernet is far easier than the first one, and by the third you’ve shifted into Fernet mode and sort of enjoy the flow of syrupy medicinal flavor with an extremely dry aftertaste into slight burning of the throat and, finally, general feeling of warmth. Sort of.
But let’s start at the beginning. My very first question on my very first night in San Francisco, “What the hell is Fernet?” Fernet is an Italian liquor in the amaro family of spirits; an aromatic and highly alcoholic fermentation of many herbs and spices. There are different companies that make “Fernet,” but the original (preferred in San Francisco) is Fernet-Branca. The Branca family started selling the brew in the first half of the nineteenth century, and Italian immigrants brought it to American cities like New York and San Francisco.
This SF Weekly article gives a good overview of the history of Fernet and its place in San Franciscan culture. Not to be too picky, but it also reads like a promotion and is heavily laden with interviews and quotes from liquor promoters and bar owners who have clear interest in expanding the Fernet name. I mentioned that to a friend who’s been in the city for a few years and is known to drink Fernet every now and again, and he gave an interesting perspective on it. He says the Fernet boom is a fairly recent phenomenon, and the fact that the SF Weekly article was published in 2005 sounds about right. That’s not to say Fernet doesn’t have a strong tradition in San Francisco – quite the contrary – but he draws a clear distinction between the mainstream Fernet obsession and the original place the drink held in San Francisco’s bar culture.
“Fernet is the San Francisco bartenders’ drink. They only stocked it because old Italian men would demand it once in a while.” From his perspective, bartenders drank it mostly because no one else ever did. And more importantly, no bar manager cared about it to keep inventory on it. “It was an industry drink. Another bartender would order it because he’d been drinking it already at his own bar. If a broke line cook needed a drink, he ordered Fernet, because he knew the bartender wouldn’t charge him. It was like a secret password – if you’re drinking Fernet, you’re industry, and you’ll get taken care of.”
That idea sheds some light on some other stories I’ve heard about Fernet. At Dave’s off Market Street (the same bar mentioned in the SF Weekly article, incidentally, only I hadn’t read that yet) last week I ended up around a table with industry people from hotels, bars, and restaurants around the neighborhood – someone from my bar knew a cook from the Marriott who was dating a waitress from another bar… and so on. It’s how these things go, and soon the group expanded to about 15 from the original three I had sat down with. A cocktail waitress next to me drank Fernet and ginger all night, and I asked her whether she honestly liked the stuff. “I don’t know,” she replied, “I just got used to it at my old job.”
She told me that at the last bar she worked at, the bartenders and waitresses would all chip in for a staff bottle (or maybe two on the weekends) and drink from it all night. It cost about $2 a person, and by the end of the night they had a buzz that wasn’t too bad to work. “There’s some ingredient in Fernet that keeps you aware even if you’ve been drinking all night,” she insisted.
It’s apparently the bottle of choice for kitchen crews around here as well. I told a coworker about my Fernet project and he was eager to tell me about his first time drinking Fernet. “I’d been in San Francisco a couple of weeks, working as a cook on an open line [a restaurant kitchen that is behind a counter as opposed to a separate room, leaving the cooks “open” to the dining room and customers], and usually we had a couple beers during service. This one night, my buddy brought a bottle over to me that said ‘Fernet Branca’ and looked like some funky old-world sort of thing. He offered me a shot, and I asked him what kind of liquor it was. As I brought it to my lips, two things happened. One, my buddy responded ‘It tastes like old lady perfume.’ At the same time, an old lady who looked like a corpse dressed in makeup and furs sat down at the table right in front of my station. It was too late to stop; I’d just poured the shot into my mouth. Between hearing it tasted like old lady perfume, seeing this trainwreck of an old lady, and trying to swallow something that looked like liquid tar but tasted EXACTLY LIKE OLD LADY PERFUME, I spat the stuff all over the place. It was a mess, and to this day I can’t think of anything but ‘old lady perfume’ when I drink Fernet.”
Everyone here has a story about the first time they drank Fernet, and as often as not the stories include spitting it out or gagging. I haven’t found one person who really likes the taste of Fernet itself, but everyone here drinks it. I’m not sure whether it’s because people want to be part of some insider’s club, whether it really is a different kind of drunkenness, or whether people just get used to it. Whatever it is, I’ll gladly take the next Fernet shot someone offers me. And I honestly can’t tell you why.