Fernet-Branca has been manufactured in Italy since 1845. Two years later, the tiny port village of Yerba Buena, Alta California, was renamed San Francisco. Love it or hate it, the oily Milanese digestif has a Belle Époque glamour that is inextricably tied to this city’s drinking culture.
While the drink’s exact composition is a closely held secret, the piney, almost mentholated liqueur that’s even more bitter than a typical amaro does contain aloe, gentian root, rhubarb, myrrh gum, red cinchona bark, galangal, zedoary, and possibly wormwood. Fernet-Branca reputedly purchases three-quarters of the world’s saffron, almost all of which is grown in Iran and would therefore be difficult for an American company to procure.
Branca is the distillery’s family name; Fernet is the product, allegedly named after a fictional Swede who touted the drink’s medicinal properties (which later kept it legal during Prohibition). In the decades since, it’s become such a cult favorite in San Francisco that in lieu of champagne, Virgil’s Sea Room – whose part-owner and bartender Gillian Fitzgerald maintains the Twitter feed @firstfernet – raised a midnight Fernet toast on New Year’s Eve.
Allegedly, upwards of 70 percent of all Fernet consumed in the US is drunk in San Francisco. To that end, I found current or former Bay Area residents who had a strong opinion on this inimitable elixir.
I absolutely love Fernet but didn’t always. My taste buds changed about five to six years ago, and bitter is now my favorite flavor. Fernet is not too sweet. The spices liven up a cocktail and make it more complex. After a large meal, it’s great, but my favorite way to drink it is simply with a beer or with a ginger ale back after a long day at work.
– Michael Aldridge, catering manager, Bi-Rite Market, San Francisco
I had it with Coke and never looked back. It’s my drink of choice.
– Michael Bolognino, product marketing manager, New York City
I like to sip Fernet with a ginger back. It makes me feel fancy. But whenever I order it, I hear someone else do it too.
– Ryan Crowder, social media strategist, San Francisco
Growing up in an Italian family, we regarded Fernet as medicine. You only drank small amounts of it when you felt completely awful. When “white” kids started drinking it recreationally, the phenomenon mystified me. It’s like a cult of people who drink NyQuil.
– Stephen Charles, leather tailor, San Francisco
I love Fernet because I tend to like bitter things, and its herbal, almost astringent feeling makes me feel like it’s good for me. Always after a big meal – I’m not sure if it’s truly the restorative powers of amaro or just psychosomatic, but it always makes me feel better.
– Anna Roth, Food Editor, SF Weekly, San Francisco
I love it. Perfect thing to settle your stomach after a large meal so you can drink more!
– Emily Atkinson, bartender, Shotwell’s, San Francisco
It’s kinda gross.
– Paolo Ikezoe, city planner,
Tastes like eating potpourri.
– Kevin Seaman, artist and performer, San Francisco
It makes me barf.
– Johnny Calderon, system administrator, San Francisco
I had a one-night stand with Fernet. Details are hazy.
– Andy Collier, San Francisco
Fernet is fine as a mixer. Straight, I’ve always spat it back into the glass.
– Zia Manekin-Hrdy, grad student, Oakland
Argentina drinks way more in my experience. Fernet-and-cola is practically their national drink. I went to a pool complex in Buenos Aires where promotional Fernet people led children in a very bizarre Fernet-Branca song and dance.
– Joel Pryde, software engineer, Seattle
It tastes like I’m drinking potting soil.
– Alex Blevins, bartender, San Francisco
One time my friends were at the Lone Palm, and David Cross was there. They bought him his very first Fernet, and after drinking it he said, it tasted “like babies…assholes.”
– Stuart Schuffman, a.k.a. Broke-Ass Stuart, San Francisco
Fernet’s got nothing on Chicago’s
– Steve McClellan, software engineer, Oakland
Ugh, maybe after I’ve finished off all the cologne samples in the house.
– DJ Bus Station John, San Francisco
It tastes like something a 90-year-old granny would drink to drown out the feelings of loss over her husband of 65 years dying five years prior.
– Johnny Kat, hair stylist, San Francisco
It tastes like mouthwash, and not the good kind. Every time I’m offered a shot of it, I feel like there’s an elaborate practical joke happening where we all pretend to love Fernet. I missed the secret meeting where we all decided it was in. Pass the bourbon, please.
– Jesse Friedman, brewmaster, Almanac Beer Co., San Francisco
When I came to SF, I worked at a restaurant at the Wharf, like everyone did. Two months into it, a lady was like, “Have a shot of Fernet!” I was like, “What is this shit?” But it grew on me. It helps people in the most wonderful ways when they eat too much food. It really does.
– Gillian Fitzgerald, part-owner/bartender, Virgil’s Sea Room, San Francisco
I’d never heard of it before I moved to SF, but I won a Fernet bike at Lucca in the Mission. I buy a bottle a week because they have the cheapest Fernet in town. One day, they told me to fill out a raffle ticket. They did it for two or three months, and I entered about 10 times. I told my girlfriend, and she said, “Oh, you’re gonna win.” I got a call at 6:30 or 7:00 in the morning. “Yeah, why don’t you come to the shop and pick up your Fernet bike?” I assembled it myself, and now I’m basically a sponsor for Fernet-Branca.
– Ross Allard, microbrewery sales rep., Cambridge, Mass.
Although I’ve never had Fernet to my knowledge, I do enjoy Underberg.
– Andy Lawyer, marketing manager, San Francisco
I first drank Fernet in SF at Thieves in the Mission. I liked it! This summer I went to Italy and bought some there. I tried to share with the young architects I was traveling with. Everyone hated it. I drank the bottle by myself over the trip, killing any desire I had to drink it again. Fernet tastes better in SF.
– Estacia Huddleston, grad student, Albuquerque
It combines the undeniable fun of drinking booze with the horror of accidentally ingesting something that tastes like it might be poisonous. It’s very confusing, and you have to pretend you love it if you want to look cool in front of whichever trendy friend tricked you into drinking it with empty promises of the “best drink you’ve ever had.” As if you could resist. An SF rite of passage.