The Myth of Fernet

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

Excellence knows no oceans, no frontiers.

— inscription, Fernet-Branca bottle

Our story begins above the ocean with the dearly beloved namesake of a reclusive Italian count lying stone-silent in a child's coffin, among the suitcases and souvenirs in the cavernous belly of a commuter jet bound for the New World.

The quiet package is in the possession of two young Americans. They had a carpenter in Lucca, Italy, fashion the diminutive pine casket, dutifully packed it with their fragile cargo, and saw it past the unquestioning customs officers, who, back in 1999, enjoyed an age when baby coffins were treated with less suspicion than they might be today.

When the container is pried open some 8,000 miles later, in one of the newest restaurants in one of San Francisco's oldest neighborhoods, the contents are pulled from the yawning mouth and carefully placed on display in a softly lit glass case, ending the miraculous passage from their homeland in Italy to their final resting place, on Fillmore Street.

“I had a couple friends …,” begins Scott Dammann, proprietor of the Eastside West, starting the tale of how he acquired the celebrated and highly sought-after trophy.

For San Francisco's devotional, seeing the contents of the coffin — an unopened, perfectly preserved 3-liter bottle of Fernet-Branca, the ancient Italian miracle drink with a remarkable local cult following — was like discovering the Holy Grail, filled to the brim.

The legendary liquid in that emerald bottle is more than merely San Francisco's preferred method of self-medication; it's an intoxicating fairy tale. And even though Dammann's story is one that demonstrates the devotion of Fernet's fans, in a city that drinks more of the liqueur than any other locale in the United States and more per capita than any place on Earth, there are plenty of asses on barstools with a story to tell about Fernet-Branca. And in telling the tales, they continue the life of the drink itself, which was born of myth, and somehow along the way has become perfectly suited to San Francisco's palate.

This is how Fernet-Branca came to thin the lifeblood of our city.

If I say to you, “Fernet-Branca,” what is it? Yeah, you've had it? It's good isn't it? It does the job. But, oh the taste.

— Bill Cosby, “Fernet-Branca” from Fat Albert, 1973

You never forget your first time.

When you hold a shot glass of Fernet-Branca to your nose, the first thing that strikes you is the physicality of the smell, which, if such a thing existed, is like black licorice-flavored Listerine. Put it to your lips and tip it back, and the assault on the throat and sinuses is aggressively medicinal. For many so-called “Fergins” uninitiated to the drink, it can be accompanied by a feeling that may either bring a tear to the eye or lunch to the esophagus. As a bitter Italian aperitif of more than 40 herbs and spices, it most often gets compared to Campari and Jägermeister, though by measure of accuracy, it's equally similar to Robitussin or Pennzoil.

It's so difficult to love that James Hamilton-Paterson's Booker Prize-nominated novel Cooking With Fernet-Branca is a 281-page sendup of the taste, including stomach-turning recipes like otter with lobster sauce and Fernet-Branca.

If you can imagine getting punched squarely in the nose while sucking on a mentholated cough drop, you'll have an idea of Fernet-Branca's indelicate first impressions.

“I need 12 shots of Fernet with ginger,” hollers a waiter at Hobson's Choice, a dyed-in-the-apron Fernet bar on Haight Street. The waiter wipes his forehead and corrects himself: “Fuck it. I'll just take the bottle.”

Few are being introduced to the drink at Hobson's Choice tonight, home of the annual “Pouring 20s” party thrown in honor of bar owners and tenders who order at least 20 cases of Fernet-Branca a month. Much to the befuddled curiosity of Haight Street walk-ins, the bar is jammed with people with limitless enthusiasm for the black syrup and a couple of girls in flapper outfits, dressed to suit the evening's pun theme.

“I thought I was going to die the first time I tasted it,” says Antoinette Cattani. As the West Coast's Fernet-Branca marketing impresario, the 34-year-old Cattani revels in her duties as tonight's host, but speaking of her first Fernet minibottle — sufficiently warmed in a car trunk on a sweltering Los Angeles afternoon — she holds her hands to her throat and sticks out her tongue. “I thought I was going to die. I actually might have gagged. It was terrible.”

Even in the crowd of Fernet zealots her story is standard.

“I have to admit, my first experience was like, 'What the fuck?'” says 26-year-old Becky Licu, who with Cattani co-owns Barfly Promotions, a company that works with Fernet-Branca. “I wasn't prepared for something like that.”

“It's an acquired taste first and foremost, like coffee or wine,” says Hobson's Choice General Manager Chris Dickerson. “First time you have it is like, 'Argh! This is absolutely horrible.'

“That's because you're used to drinking Jäger,” Dickerson continues. “And stuff with a lot of sugar. This is a lot crisper and cleaner, and you feel a lot better in the morning. It's terrible at first, but in five minutes — it's amazing — you'll feel a whole lot better. Then it's time for another one.”

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. [page]

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.

“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!”

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. [page]

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.”

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. [page]

“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 King magazine 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.

As Fogarty does a quick shot with some friends, it starts to rain outside and a cool, clean breeze enters the bar though the open doors and under the shelf of empty green bottles, bringing to mind the parting words of Branca's spokesman, Ricardo Destesano. “I say to San Francisco: I give you my baby! Enjoy! Take the good care!”

The family members in the bar hold their drinks carefully in the air, look each other in the eye, and make a toast — to each other, to Fernet-Branca, to San Francisco.

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