Fernet is a dark spirit.
Bitter, pungent darkness floats in the rocks glass in front of me. I can smell it wafting in a thick cloud, like those wavy lines you see emanating from a strong bit of cheese in an old cartoon, ready to hit you in the face with a sledgehammer that miraculously forms itself from the void.
The smell alone can turn a lot of people off. Most people I introduce to it, I see their noses crinkle up and it’s immediately pushed away. It doesn’t judge. It knows what it is. It knows they’ll get curious and take that first sip. Most do.
The first time I ever really noticed it, I was in Buenos Aires. I thought my time there would consist of eating steaks the size of Volkswagens and hunting down elderly Nazis. I made time for both and added drinking into the schedule to keep it interesting. The Argentine version of the Cuba libre is fernet and Coke. And if they’re not drinking yerba mate out of gourds hung around their necks (each includes a funky silver straw and a red-hot water bottle underneath it straight from grandma’s medicine cabinet to keep it warm), they’re drinking fernet, usually with Coca-Cola. So, when in Buenos Aires, do as the ugly Americans do: Incorporate cultural habits to take back with the intent of impressing/annoying your less-than-cosmopolitan friends.
Upon returning, I was eager to impart my now-worldly views on drinking to the peasants I left behind. That didn’t happen. I did learn what the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon is, though. Also known as “Frequency Bias,” the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon is what happens when you run across something you think is relatively obscure, and then immediately see it everywhere you go. This could be a word, an object and, in my case, it was Fernet-Branca.
It turns out I had missed the boat on fernet by a half-decade or so. I now saw it everywhere. Every bar had it, suddenly everyone held a fernet in their hand, downing a shot to start a shift or pouring a couple of fingers to finish one.
A short history: Fernet is part of the Amaro class of liqueurs. An Italian digestif, they’re made from herbs, roots and flowers. Usually served neat, they make a nice sipper with a citrus wedge. Where fernet differs is the popularity within the bar and server culture. Known as the “Bartender’s Handshake,” it’s now normal to see off-duty barkeeps start a night with a shot of the vicious stuff.
My God, it’s been here all this time?
It serves as a wink and a nudge if you go to a new bar in a new town. It signifies that you belong to the club, and there’s no membership, no dues, no handbook, nothing but the fernet judging you as it stares up patiently.
There’s a calling card though: a simple coin, highly coveted among aficionados, rare as a raw steak.
It’s a throwback to World War II squadrons who used personalized coins from their units to one-up each other, and to get out of hefty bar tabs. Notoriously hard to get, they must be given, and with each comes an understanding that, if challenged, you must produce yours or pay for the round. About the size of an old Eisenhower dollar, it exists with the “Fernet-Branca” logo on one side and some event or regional signifier on the other. It’s a mark, an identifier, like a tattoo you carry in your pocket.
Pretentious? Perhaps. I had one random guy come in and slam down his coin like he expected me to let him drink free all night. That’s pretentious. My advice to coinholders is: Don’t say shit. Order a drink, talk bar stuff. Be normal. Christ, be an adult.
There are conventions that happen all over the world now, just for bartenders. There are camps that take groups to tour distilleries, breweries, farms, and build camaraderie around the career. There are competitions that bring “mixologists” together to work and learn new methods and share ideas, much like any other industry. Even here in Winston-Salem, I know of many bartenders who travel regularly to spread their know-how and learn other’s ways. There’s a nod, an understanding between them. Even something as simple as a once obscure Italian drink (and its coin) breeds a kinship.
Over the years since I’ve encountered it, fernet has become legion. It’s become so popular with the service industry now, I serve it just about every night. Some bartenders, that’s all they drink.
As I sit here at 3 a.m. in this closed bar with Sun-Ra gently playing in the background (instrumental shit helps me write), I’m contemplating the last bit of fernet in my glass. And as the last taste of that potent mix burns down my throat to warm my stomach, I shut off the lights before going home, I think about that first encounter.
Beats hunting Nazis.