Tuesday, February 28

Fernet is brown liquid magic in a green bottle

If you're wondering whether or not you've had Fernet-Branca, then you haven't had it. Trust me, you'd know.

The first time I tried Fernet was at Wild Ginger in Seattle, almost four years ago. Taer ordered way too much food, and I ate way too much as a result. It wasn't pretty.

Our waiter recommended this smelly brown digestif to fix my aching tummy, and as soon as I took my first sip, I immediately wanted to spit it out onto that waiter's face for forcing such an awful thing on me! Blech! It reminded me of this herbal Asian medicine called Han-Yak, a thing of stinky terror when I was child.

Fernet scared me as an adult.

Over a year ago, after an especially spicy Thai meal with Lee, she and I decided to hit the bar at Slanted Door. Once again, my stomach was not at its best. (By the way, I swear that I'm not a weak eater. I can normally consume just about anything!) So guess what happened? Yup, the bartender there also pushed Fernet, swearing I'd feel better.

Trying to be cool and not wanting to poop the party, I decided to give it a try. My initial reaction was one of regret, but I didn't want to get banned from SD forever for actually spitting in such a swanky spot, so I swallowed... and my tummy got all better! Really!

And now I love Fernet. I can honestly say that I genuinely enjoy it, ache or no ache. Every time we're out, I start my night with a shot, but I sip instead of shoot. And the "ginger back" (ginger ale chaser) is key. It's good and strangely comforting... brown magic in a bottle.

Beyond the tummy aches, it's supposedly good for hangovers. I'm sad when I travel and can't find it, and I've learned that Fernet is a San Francisco bartender favorite. When I ask for Fernet here, I'm asked, "Ginger back?" In a lot of other cities, bartenders have given me various quizzical looks.

There's more information in this great article in SF Weekly: The Myth of Fernet. It's a long read, so I'll pull a few quotes below:
  • As a bitter Italian aperitif of more than 40 herbs and spices, it most often gets compared to Campari and J├Ągermeister, though by measure of accuracy, it's equally similar to Robitussin or Pennzoil.
  • "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.'
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • At San Francisco's R Bar, Tod Alsman and Chris Fogarty serve more Fernet-Branca than any other bar in North America. 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. "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."
  • Italy's gift to the world.
    -- Fernet-Branca advertising slogan, 1850-present

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