The bodega stocks it on the bottom shelf. It doesn’t sell much. Ask for a bottle and the owner will reply, “You actually drink that stuff?” If you order a shot, the bartender will ask, “Where do you work?” Only bartenders drink it, the thinking goes, because no one else will notice if the bottles get empty.
“That stuff” is Fernet Branca—ubiquitous, beloved, feared—the bitter blood of San Francisco. Fernet is an amaro, an Italian bitter liquor praised as a medicinal coda to over-indulgence, a repentant slap of tongue-scraping acid brewed — cauldron-style, one imagines — with mystical herbs and roots designed to aid digestion, cure hangovers, build brotherhood, and strip paint. Most amari contain sugar. Fernet does not. It tastes kind of like licorice and kind of like poison. In fact, some say it tastes so awful it triggers your body’s natural detox response. In some bars, a round of Fernet is called a “man up.”
The exact mixture of Fernet’s 40 spices is kept a secret, à la Coke. Only three people know the ingredients, the legend goes, and only one of them knows the exact recipe. To the rest of us, Fernet is a neutral grain spirit flavored with some or all of the following: galangal, cinnamon, myrrh, aloe, quinine, rhubarb, and saffron. Lots and lots of saffron. (Fernet uses 75% of the world’s yearly saffron crop.)
Fernet is made in Milan, but mention the drink — even in Italy — and two cities will come up more often: Buenos Aires and San Francisco. Argentines drink more Fernet than anyone on earth. Buenos Aires has the only operating distillery outside Milan. The Argentine national drink — Fernet and Coke — has its own theme song.
San Franciscans drink the most Fernet in the U.S. Thirty-five percent of the country’s imported bottles are poured out here. Why? No one knows.
Some say it’s because bartenders drink it. Historically, they could sneak mid-shift shots in espresso cups and no one would notice. The unsold bottles of Fernet were just gathering dust anyway. Pretty soon, it trended. We dream of power, love, and being friends with the bartender. We’ll have what he’s having, and what he’s having is Fernet.
Oddly, the darling of cocktail slingers from North Beach to Excelsior is damned hard to make into a decent drink. Fernet is so, uh, assertive, it’ll overpower anything mixed with it. Vodka? Forget it. Gin? Close—the classic Hanky Panky uses gin, sweet vermouth, and a dash or two of Fernet in place of bitters. The vermouth helps translate between the sweet, floral gin and the earthy Fernet, a kind of bridge over bitter waters.
.75 oz Canton
.75 oz Fernet
.75 oz Carpano
.75 oz Lime juice
Pour into a highball glass with ice, top off with ginger beer (Bundaberg if you can find it), and serve with a lime wheel.