The Myth of Fernet

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

"Part of the reason no one has ever been able to replicate it," says Cattani, "is because you can't just get all the ingredients in one area. It comes from around the world."

Count Niccolo Branca oversees the process today. Fermented for a year in oak barrels and then bottled in Milan, the mixture arrives here in cases of six green 750-milliliter containers filled with liquid that looks black through the glass of the bottle, deep brown in a shot glass, and slightly green in the light. It leaves an oily coating in the glass, a permanent stain on clothing, and has to be scrubbed out of white linoleum and the drinker's teeth.

"When people asking me what is in the Fernet-Branca," Destesano says, nearly shouting, "I tell them life!"

Becky Licu and Antoinette Cattani, of Barfly Promotions.
Paolo Vescia
Becky Licu and Antoinette Cattani, of Barfly Promotions.
Kenny Meade tosses back a Fernet shot at the R Bar with 
bar owner Tod Alsman  tending.
Paolo Vescia
Kenny Meade tosses back a Fernet shot at the R Bar with bar owner Tod Alsman tending.

Novare serbando (Renew but conserve).

-- Branca Products motto, 1850

The most trustworthy story of Fernet-Branca's creation in 1845 is traced to a home that still sits on a street named Corso di Porta Nuova in Milan. Just before the bloody regional revolt against Austria that unified Italy, self-taught herbalist Bernardino Branca, the great-great-grandfather of Count Niccolo Branca, brewed a new amaro (a bitter digestive liqueur) and, after testing it on his family, went into business selling it with his three sons -- Luigi, Giuseppe, and Stephano -- and Stephano's savvy wife, Maria Scala.

The name "Fernet" itself was invented then, too, an exotic moniker that loosely implies the use of a "clean iron" in the distillation process, which has since been used for knockoffs like Luxardo Fernet Amaropad and Fernet Stock.

The first adverts in local political papers boasted of a "febrifuge, vermifuge, tonic, anti-choleric, warming pick-me-up" that could be mixed with everything from vermouth to animal broth. Scala wisely marketed it to women to ease menstrual discomfort (until 1913, only women were depicted drinking it in advertisements), but it was also lauded to aid digestion, impede nervous irritation, stimulate the appetite, treat troubles of the "splean," cure anxiety, quell stomach aches and headaches, and arrest the effects of old age.

And the lie spread like wildfire. During the period of shaky near-science at the mid-1840s, old Bernardino's secret concoction of herbs and spices -- which was first credited to a fictional long-lived Swede named Dr. Fernet Svedese and later a clandestine sect of friars from a remote alpine hermitage -- became one of the most successful products in pre-unification Italy. During a time when bloodletting was common and antibiotics were unheard-of, Fernet-Branca -- with its peculiar alcohol kick and heady dose of opiates -- was a certain miracle cure. In stark contrast to the draconian warnings of our modern-day surgeons general, it was widely endorsed by doctors. Some even stocked it in their hospitals.

Popularized by clever advertising -- iconic images of Romanesque women, colorful jesters, and the euphoric alligator (an animal famed for its great digestive abilities) -- Fernet went global. At the turn of the century, Italian illustrator Leopoldo Metlicovitz designed the logo that still graces the bottle: a land-and-water globe under an eagle whose talons clutch the miracle bottle, delivering Italy's "gift to the world" to every continent. The drink came to the United States in the suitcases of Italian immigrants, finding a home in the Italian wards of San Francisco, New York City, Baltimore, and Detroit, as well as those throughout Central and South America.

When Prohibition laws were passed in the U.S. in 1919, the myth of Fernet-Branca was a salvation: Imported as a medicine, it was perhaps the only package liquor legally sold in the States. A year before the 18th Amendment was repealed, the demand for Fernet-Branca was so great that the Branca family, then in its fourth generation of ownership, opened an American distillery in New York City's Tribeca. The paperwork of the distillery lists deliveries to more than 40 San Francisco drugstores, most of which were in North Beach.

After enduring blue laws and the Second World War (during which the American distillery was deemed "essential" to the same war effort that bombed the Italian distillery), the popularity of Fernet-Branca soared, with production from the American distillery peaking in 1960, when it produced more than 60,000 cases. With the Drug Regulation Reform Act of 1978, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms took a more investigative sip of the drink and tightened controls on Fernet-Branca, forcing one of the few changes in the recipe in order to bring opiates down to legal levels.

Today Fernet-Branca is 80 proof, with only trace amounts of opiates. Bottles of the earlier opiate-rich brew are rare and can be identified by true Fernet-Branca scholars upon a close examination of the label.

Ferneducator: One who teaches others about Fernet-Branca.

-- Fernet-Etiquette glossary, date and author unknown

On a sunny afternoon, the bottles of trendy new liquor behind the bar at Pier 23 seem a lot like celebrity weddings: colorful, slightly nauseating, and quickly forgotten. The biggest fad drink currently is a turquoise blend of vodka, cognac, and fruit juice -- Hpnotiq is its name -- which tastes like Kool-Aid and leaves many a Tri Delt with morning-after regret.

"Every other day there is another vodka in a frosted bottle with a fuckin' albatross on it," says Mike Fogarty. "In two months, no one will order the stuff. You can make a lamp out of it."

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