The Myth of Fernet

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

On the other hand, the mean-looking bottles of Fernet-Branca stay on lower shelves, within the easy reach of the bartenders.

A longtime San Francisco bartender, Fogarty (who, with a wink, adds that he only ever drinks the stuff in moderation) is joined at Pier 23 by Dave Supple from Dave's Bar and the owners of San Francisco's No. 1 Fernet destination, the R Bar, which is owned by Tod Alsman and Mike's son, Chris Fogarty. At the R Bar, Alsman and Chris Fogarty serve more Fernet-Branca than any other bar in North America; Chris' dad and Supple have also been serving it for years. It's a round-table liquid lunch with San Francisco's Fernet ambassadors, which is something of a family tradition.

Supple and the senior Fogarty tell the story of Fernet's slow expansion from old-school North Beach businesses. Today it's the younger generation of the bar and food service industry that's largely responsible for the liqueur's vogue. From its deep roots in the Italian-American community, the gospel of Fernet was spread by bartenders and servers to the customers in the city's foodie set. Fernet-Branca found the route to San Francisco's heart through its stomach.

"We're an industry bar, and all the hotel and restaurant people come after work," explains Supple. "For a while we would keep Fernet for the old-timers, 'cause no one else drank it." As Supple explains it, everyone will always want to drink what the bartender drinks, and that way Fernet's popularity bridged the gap between the generations.

"It's the bartender's secret," adds Mike Fogarty. "You knew when you were having a shot of Fernet with your bartender that you were part of the deal." He adds: "The perfect cure in the morning, when the whips and jingles are fast approaching."

In a city that prides itself on food, independence, and sophistication, and certainly the need for a hangover cure, Fernet-Branca offered a perfect fit for San Francisco's character.

The cautious marketing of Cattani and her partner Licu doesn't hurt either. They've avoided the mainstream promotional tactics of the of-the-minute liquors (a recent spread in Kingmagazine featured two half-dressed Hpnotiq hostesses serving the drink while rolling around on a pool table) and have successfully wedded Fernet to San Francisco's underground community. They're sponsoring a Fernet-Branca-themed art show at the Shooting Gallery on Dec. 15 (with an open Fernet bar, of course), and constantly back less mainstream events like the Noise Pop music festival.

"If you go into a bar and someone in a spandex dress gives you a shot, sure, the guys will love it," Licu says. "But they're only going to remember the girl in the spandex dress, not the drink. San Francisco is too smart for that."

"It is a cult. It is a love-hate relationship. You get it or you don't," Cattani says simply. "San Francisco gets it."

And, most of all, Fernet-Branca allows a huge spectrum of San Franciscans to feel like they're in on a secret: Hipster kids with sideways haircuts can slam it in Mission dive bars, the blue bloods can sip it after gorging on haute cuisine, and everyone in between gets the sense of insider ownership with just a drink.

Italy's gift to the world.

-- Fernet-Branca advertising slogan, 1850-present

The R Bar, a plain facade situated just between Nikki's Oriental Massage and Amanda for Hair at the dodgy end of the Tendernob, is at the center of the Fernet-Branca phenomenon, and, as such, is something of a miraculous place. Coming through the doorway, you pass beneath a shelf lined with Fernet empties, which stretches into a long, narrow room -- a polished wooden bar on the left, a few small tables on the right, and a small lounge in back. The jukebox plays a steady gale of kitschy, nostalgic butt-rock -- Mötley Crüe, Guns N' Roses, and AC/DC -- a soundtrack suited to the tastes of the quarter-life-crisis patrons who greet each other with hands on the smalls of backs, fraternal shoulder pats, and the too-friendly hugs of people whose bonds are largely based on getting shitfaced in common physical spaces. Dim and loud, the R Bar looks a lot like any other bar in any other neighborhood in San Francisco on a Friday at midnight, except that it's Monday, just past 10 p.m., and this is Fernet-Branca ground zero.

"Everyone wants to be the No. 1 Fernet bar in the city -- but no one can even touch the place," Licu says.

That might be because when you take inventory of the room, it has all brands of Fernet drinker: after-work servers from top-flight restaurants around the city -- hosts and managers from Michael Mina and Myth, Crustacean, Cortez, and Town Hall -- weathered Italian barflies, and the underground fashionista set. The Fernet family.

You saddle up to the bar to yell orders at Chris Fogarty -- the only staff tonight -- and have a few shots of Fernet with ginger backs; soon you're part of the family, too. If every bar in San Francisco has a story of Fernet, the one in the R Bar seems most complete.

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