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The bit about the hangover is apparently true, and Fernet-Branca's mysterious herbal brew has been a "bartender's cure" for generations. And, if consumed properly, it prevents hangovers just as well. If you avoid mixing the drink with beer, wine, or liquor of lesser quality, and stick to drinking only Fernet with ginger or soda, the next day is almost certainly free of head-pounding guilt. But these are only some of Fernet-Branca's promises.
"It's safe to say you could go to any bar in San Francisco and get a different story of Fernet," Cattani says.
It's likely that yarns are being spun in bars up and down Haight and Mission streets, in restaurants dotting North Beach, SOMA, and Union Square. Tonight, San Francisco will tip back its share of nearly 50 percent of the Fernet-Branca consumed in the United States.
All the talk makes Cattani and Licu thirsty, and, joined by waitstaff from various Fernet strongholds, they down another shot. One of the bartenders holds his emptied glass for a moment and marvels, "Delicious."
Fernet-Branca: The best known of Italian bitters. It is used as an aperitif and generally recommended to settle upset stomachs and hangovers.
-- Alex Lichine's New Encyclopedia of Wines and Spirits, Fourth Edition, 1985
Mr. Lichine only offers the tip of the iceberg. Depending on whom you ask, the occasional spot of Fernet can cure cholera, quiet a screaming baby (a remedy surprisingly put forth by Healthy & Natural Journal), or get you stoned. For the ladies -- nothing works finer for those difficult days of the month. For the fellas -- a way to avert certain physical ineptitudes in the bedroom after long nights of drinking.
"I had a man who just called me who was 67 years old who stayed on the phone with me for an hour, talking about what the drink meant to him," says Cattani. "About how he always had to take it as a kid and it's been in his family as a medicine. He keeps one [bottle] in the kitchen and one in the bathroom."
Hemingway hated it, Hunter Thompson lampooned it, and Sean Penn told an interviewer that it treated him to the best shits of his life.
Like any urban legend, Fernet-Branca is anything you want it to be. But no one knows exactly what it is.
"There are only a small amount of people in the world who know the recipe to Fernet-Branca, and they are no telling," says Ricardo Destesano, the CEO of Branca Products' Argentine division and the Branca family spokesman, who probably knows but is no telling. He sounds, during this 7 a.m. call from Buenos Aires, a bit like a Fernet-addled Roberto Benigni. "Argentina loves Fernet! And then, San Francisco is loving Fernet very much also!"
He's not kidding about Argentina, a part of the world that actually shames San Francisco with its devotion to the drink. There, a million cases a year are mixed with cola as the national cocktail -- one that comes complete with a synth-driven toe-tapper for a theme song, "Fernet Con Coca," by Vilma Palma, which spent weeks at the top of Argentine radio charts (a rough translation of the lyrics: "I'm half-crazy, but I don't want to end up in a cell without my Fernet with Coca-Cola"). Heading the only operational distillery outside of Milan, Destesano attributes his youthful vigor to a daily dose. "Fifty-eight years old and still the kid," he says of himself. "A kid of 58, oh!"
If you ask him for an ideal occasion for Fernet-Branca, his personal preference is "after the tennis game, before meal in the evening, after work, going out at night, with coffee, with cooking meat." But on the ingredients, he has less to offer. "Oh, boy," he says. "Fernet-Branca has in it many wonderful things!"
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. A spice that also, in great enough quantity, can be made into a little something called MDMA, known to club kids as Ecstasy.
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. If you ask most self-schooled Fernet authorities to list the 40 ingredients, you'll get 100 certain answers.
"Part of the reason no one has ever been able to replicate it," says Cattani, "is because you can't just get all the ingredients in one area. It comes from around the world."
Count Niccolo Branca oversees the process today. Fermented for a year in oak barrels and then bottled in Milan, the mixture arrives here in cases of six green 750-milliliter containers filled with liquid that looks black through the glass of the bottle, deep brown in a shot glass, and slightly green in the light. It leaves an oily coating in the glass, a permanent stain on clothing, and has to be scrubbed out of white linoleum and the drinker's teeth.
"When people asking me what is in the Fernet-Branca," Destesano says, nearly shouting, "I tell them life!"
Novare serbando (Renew but conserve).
-- Branca Products motto, 1850
The most trustworthy story of Fernet-Branca's creation in 1845 is traced to a home that still sits on a street named Corso di Porta Nuova in Milan. Just before the bloody regional revolt against Austria that unified Italy, self-taught herbalist Bernardino Branca, the great-great-grandfather of Count Niccolo Branca, brewed a new amaro (a bitter digestive liqueur) and, after testing it on his family, went into business selling it with his three sons -- Luigi, Giuseppe, and Stephano -- and Stephano's savvy wife, Maria Scala.