It’s become something of a cliché to say “Fernet: you love it or you hate it,” but it’s also difficult to start a discussion of it with anything else. More than any other amaro—save Campari, perhaps, but that’s not even technically an amaro—Fernet is an extraordinarily divisive drink. Perhaps it’s appropriate, then, that its de facto capitol in the United States is that home of so many other exuberant misfits, San Francisco.
But before we get too deep into this Milanese liqueur‘s weirdly-specific popularity distribution, we should probably talk about what, exactly, it is.
What is Fernet?
Fernet-Branca, the first and most ubiquitous brand in the category (and as far as some purists are concerned, the only one that matters), was concocted by Sig. Bernandino Branca in 1845. Right off the bat, it was touted in advertisements as a panacea capable of curing everything from a hangover to cholera.
As the latter half of the nineteenth century progressed, doctors in Italy and abroad began stocking the stuff as a remedy for upset stomachs, fussy children, and menstrual cramps (this was actually a large part of Fernet-Branca’s early market, and apparently their advertisements exclusively featured women drinkers until as late as 1913).
It’s not clear how widespread its use as a medicinal tincture really was, but coupled with sales to a more recreational market it succeeded in establishing Fratelli Branca as an international brand.
And while it may seem strange today, given that the general recommendation from doctors when it comes to drinking alcohol is “don’t,” the perception that Fernet was somehow medicinal is actually pretty intuitive.
Though the exact recipe is a closely-guarded secret, us mere mortals have managed to confirm that myrrh, gentian root, cinchona bark, orris root, zedoary, and saffron—many of which have at least some history in folk medicine, whether they were effective or not—make up a few of the purported 40-plus herbs, spices, roots, and extracts that go into it.
In fact, that classification allowed it to be sold in the US during Prohibition, giving it a solid decade of relatively uncontested space in the minds of American drinkers. It’s not surprising, then, that it took off on this side of the pond in the ’30s and ’40s.
Why is Fernet So Popular in San Francisco?
But why did it become such a big deal in San Francisco? It seems like every night out with old-school locals (or, increasingly, off-duty mustachioed bartenders and hipster kids in the Mission) ends with a round of Fernet and ginger ale, or any number of the popular cocktails that include it. As of 2008 the city was responsible for consuming roughly 25% of all US imports of the stuff.
Many have pointed to the city’s large Italian immigrant population in the late 1800s, which certainly seems to explain some of its staying power. But there were plenty of other locales full of people who had brought this beloved amaro over from the old country, so that doesn’t seem sufficient.
Hell, the only Fernet distillery ever to exist in the States was in New York City.
Drink historians (and a few oral histories) trace its place of origin within San Francisco to the area in and around North Beach. From there, it spread throughout the bars and bodegas of the city little by little, eventually becoming something of an underground mainstay for bartenders and in-the-know locals.
It’s not hard to imagine how it evolved from that into the cultural phenomenon that it is today.
Unfortunately, despite our best efforts to dig up some hard evidence of causality, it doesn’t seem like anyone has really offered a good answer to that original question: why here? This may simply be one of those cultural phenomena that are relegated to folkloric reasoning.
But perhaps that’s the point. Fernet has always been a bit mythical, and nearly every evangelist of the stuff has some off-the-wall story about it that sounds just unbelievable enough to be true.
It’s fitting, then, that it settled in a city like San Francisco. This is a place that prides itself on being open-minded, weird, and inscrutable to outsiders. And given the last decade or two of strife between transplants and locals, it’s nice to see that some things close to this city’s heart have gone unchanged.
Photo: Will Shenton