Is Underberg San Francisco's New Fernet?

Jul 08 at 11am

Is San Francisco’s relationship with Fernet Branca really monogamous, or does the city’s reigning digestif have a rival in Underberg?

Fernet, made in Italy since 1845, and Underberg, made in Germany since 1846, are each aromatic bitters with secret, proprietary recipes. Both taste of licorice, claim medicinal properties, and are concocted with herbs and roots of the genus gentiana (a family of flowering plants).

But unlike Fernet, you won’t find Underberg on tap in San Francisco, though that’s not to say Underberg is a true underdog. Perhaps you’ve noticed its distinguishing little 20 ml bottles (which might be mistaken for hot sauce) hanging from branded leather belts behind Bay Area bars. Despite Underberg’s 44% alcohol by volume (compared with Fernet’s 40%), Underberg is not considered a spirit because it has no added sugar and can therefore be served at beer and wine-only bars and restaurants.

Maybe you’re most familiar with — or intrigued by — the seductive drumming of Underberg bottles on tables and bars, part of a popular local drinking method that by some accounts originated at Amnesia in the Mission. Underberg is “not to be sipped,” lectures the label, but “taken all at once and quickly.” So, in a fitting ritual not prescribed but passed down, rub the bottle between both hands (to loosen its brown paper covering), tap the bottom on a hard surface (to mix the stuff and attract attention), then unscrew the cap and take Underberg as a shot (bonus points for drinking with no hands).

This multi-step shot process, explains Amnesia owner Shawn Magee, was pioneered by one of his bartenders. “It was just this thing that happened naturally: How do you cheers this thing? She just started tapping it on the bar and noticed that after you started tapping everyone asked what the hell you were doing.”

Rub the bottle between both hands, tap the bottom on a hard surface, then unscrew the cap and take Underberg as a shot.

Chandra Gandolfo, a bartender at The Sycamore where Underberg is an after hours staff favorite, heartily agrees: “When one person gets them, someone else will see them and get them and there’s a trickle down effect.”

This seems to be the process for Underberg virality. Ordering the stuff, especially in groups, tends to draw stares, questions, and eventually, more orders of Underberg.

In a recent episode of Vice Munchies, State Bird Provisions luminaries Stuart Brioza and Nicole Krasinski enjoy an Underberg shot with Magee at Amnesia (10:40). Brioza notes that Underberg could be sipped on the street thanks to its paper covering, and the Amnesia proprietor quotes the brand’s quirky marketing which encourages users to feel “bright and alert” after a good meal with an elixir that “cannot be explained: it must be experienced.”

Prepared with herbs from 43 countries and aged in Slovenian oak barrels, Underberg’s unique flavor profile might be classified as an acquired taste. Says Rusty Olson, bar manager at Suppenküche: “One of the predominant flavors is anise, and that’s probably one of my least favorite flavors. But watching me consume Underberg, you would think that I love it.” And Olson and others certainly seem to.

That San Francisco should show signs of growing affection for Underberg is historically appropriate, says general manager of Underberg sales Martyn Cignell. “San Francisco is basically the catalyst that started everything: The first shipment of Underberg to the United States was placed in 1860 to San Francisco.” It’s also a drink in line with the city’s food and beverage culture, he notes: “There’s an association of Underberg with gastronomy and growth in the craft beer industry… as well as mixology and the bitters movement.”

The first shipment of Underberg to the United States was placed in 1860 to San Francisco

The Lower Haight’s Toronado is another Underberg proponent, though in typical fashion its bartenders were tight-lipped about almost everything on a recent evening. One did imply that the bar was among the city’s most popular Underberg purveyors. That’s a claim Amnesia also made explicitly: says Magee “We sell a shit ton of Underberg.”

For Underberg super fans, remember to collect the bottles’ miniature caps, which can be redeemed for prizes like signs and glasses as part of a company loyalty program. However, many Bay Area bars like Toronado and The Sycamore will keep the caps for you and reap the rewards themselves (some of which are on display).

While investigating Underberg and its status, I admit I became attached to its current degree of emerging cachet. After all, if every city bargoer recognized these tiny bottles (hiding in plain site at so many establishments), couldn’t Underberg literally sell out? That is, if completely popularized to the level of Fernet, would Underberg’s mystery – and patrons’ desire to unlock it – be quite so keen? But Underberg’s rise might well be unstoppable, says Cigell. “It’s finally coming into its own as very much a grassroots development, through word of mouth.”

In this light, San Francisco might be at the perfect moment to truly enjoy Underberg: tapping it on the city’s bars and tables before these bitters fully tap into the mainstream market.

Photos by damiel via Flickr and Kyle Hughes

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