The Myth of Fernet

The saga of Fernet, and its cultlike popularity, says a lot about San Francisco

Tonight, Cattani and Licu -- who both have black hair and a seemingly insatiable thirst for the product they peddle -- move through the bar throwing back shots and chasing them with small glasses of ginger ale -- the style of drinking Fernet-Branca that is most popular in San Francisco. Most of the bar is 10 shots into the stuff when people start speaking the language of Fernet, so-called "Fernetonics," and telling slightly exaggerated stories of "Fernightmares," when their love for the drink got the best of them and they had to wake up the next day and have a glass of it to soothe their hangovers.

The bit about the hangover is apparently true, and Fernet-Branca's mysterious herbal brew has been a "bartender's cure" for generations. And, if consumed properly, it prevents hangovers just as well. If you avoid mixing the drink with beer, wine, or liquor of lesser quality, and stick to drinking only Fernet with ginger or soda, the next day is almost certainly free of head-pounding guilt. But these are only some of Fernet-Branca's promises.

"It's safe to say you could go to any bar in San Francisco and get a different story of Fernet," Cattani says.

It's likely that yarns are being spun in bars up and down Haight and Mission streets, in restaurants dotting North Beach, SOMA, and Union Square. Tonight, San Francisco will tip back its share of nearly 50 percent of the Fernet-Branca consumed in the United States.

All the talk makes Cattani and Licu thirsty, and, joined by waitstaff from various Fernet strongholds, they down another shot. One of the bartenders holds his emptied glass for a moment and marvels, "Delicious."

Fernet-Branca: The best known of Italian bitters. It is used as an aperitif and generally recommended to settle upset stomachs and hangovers.

-- Alex Lichine's New Encyclopedia of Wines and Spirits, Fourth Edition, 1985

Mr. Lichine only offers the tip of the iceberg. Depending on whom you ask, the occasional spot of Fernet can cure cholera, quiet a screaming baby (a remedy surprisingly put forth by Healthy & Natural Journal), or get you stoned. For the ladies -- nothing works finer for those difficult days of the month. For the fellas -- a way to avert certain physical ineptitudes in the bedroom after long nights of drinking.

"I had a man who just called me who was 67 years old who stayed on the phone with me for an hour, talking about what the drink meant to him," says Cattani. "About how he always had to take it as a kid and it's been in his family as a medicine. He keeps one [bottle] in the kitchen and one in the bathroom."

Hemingway hated it, Hunter Thompson lampooned it, and Sean Penn told an interviewer that it treated him to the best shits of his life.

Like any urban legend, Fernet-Branca is anything you want it to be. But no one knows exactly what it is.

"There are only a small amount of people in the world who know the recipe to Fernet-Branca, and they are no telling," says Ricardo Destesano, the CEO of Branca Products' Argentine division and the Branca family spokesman, who probably knows but is no telling. He sounds, during this 7 a.m. call from Buenos Aires, a bit like a Fernet-addled Roberto Benigni. "Argentina loves Fernet! And then, San Francisco is loving Fernet very much also!"

He's not kidding about Argentina, a part of the world that actually shames San Francisco with its devotion to the drink. There, a million cases a year are mixed with cola as the national cocktail -- one that comes complete with a synth-driven toe-tapper for a theme song, "Fernet Con Coca," by Vilma Palma, which spent weeks at the top of Argentine radio charts (a rough translation of the lyrics: "I'm half-crazy, but I don't want to end up in a cell without my Fernet with Coca-Cola"). Heading the only operational distillery outside of Milan, Destesano attributes his youthful vigor to a daily dose. "Fifty-eight years old and still the kid," he says of himself. "A kid of 58, oh!"

If you ask him for an ideal occasion for Fernet-Branca, his personal preference is "after the tennis game, before meal in the evening, after work, going out at night, with coffee, with cooking meat." But on the ingredients, he has less to offer. "Oh, boy," he says. "Fernet-Branca has in it many wonderful things!"

Precisely which wonderful things has been a closely guarded secret of the Branca family for generations, but it's known that the grape base is infused with aloe, myrrh, chamomile, cardamom, and a hearty offering of saffron, a key ingredient. By accounting for an estimated 75 percent of the world's saffron consumption, the Branca family essentially controls the market price of the spice -- which at about $900 a pound is easily among the most expensive edibles in the world. A spice that also, in great enough quantity, can be made into a little something called MDMA, known to club kids as Ecstasy.

The wonderful things rumored to be in the liqueur include codeine, mushrooms, fermented beets, coca leaf, gentian, rhubarb, wormwood, zedoary, cinchona, bay leaves, absinthe, orange peel, calumba, echinacea, quinine, ginseng, St. John's wort, sage, and peppermint oil. If you ask most self-schooled Fernet authorities to list the 40 ingredients, you'll get 100 certain answers.

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