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The Myth of Fernet 

The saga of Fernet, and its cultlike popularity, says a lot about San Francisco

Wednesday, Dec 7 2005
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Excellence knows no oceans, no frontiers.

-- inscription, Fernet-Branca bottle

Our story begins above the ocean with the dearly beloved namesake of a reclusive Italian count lying stone-silent in a child's coffin, among the suitcases and souvenirs in the cavernous belly of a commuter jet bound for the New World.

The quiet package is in the possession of two young Americans. They had a carpenter in Lucca, Italy, fashion the diminutive pine casket, dutifully packed it with their fragile cargo, and saw it past the unquestioning customs officers, who, back in 1999, enjoyed an age when baby coffins were treated with less suspicion than they might be today.

When the container is pried open some 8,000 miles later, in one of the newest restaurants in one of San Francisco's oldest neighborhoods, the contents are pulled from the yawning mouth and carefully placed on display in a softly lit glass case, ending the miraculous passage from their homeland in Italy to their final resting place, on Fillmore Street.

"I had a couple friends ...," begins Scott Dammann, proprietor of the Eastside West, starting the tale of how he acquired the celebrated and highly sought-after trophy.

For San Francisco's devotional, seeing the contents of the coffin -- an unopened, perfectly preserved 3-liter bottle of Fernet-Branca, the ancient Italian miracle drink with a remarkable local cult following -- was like discovering the Holy Grail, filled to the brim.

The legendary liquid in that emerald bottle is more than merely San Francisco's preferred method of self-medication; it's an intoxicating fairy tale. And even though Dammann's story is one that demonstrates the devotion of Fernet's fans, in a city that drinks more of the liqueur than any other locale in the United States and more per capita than any place on Earth, there are plenty of asses on barstools with a story to tell about Fernet-Branca. And in telling the tales, they continue the life of the drink itself, which was born of myth, and somehow along the way has become perfectly suited to San Francisco's palate.

This is how Fernet-Branca came to thin the lifeblood of our city.

If I say to you, "Fernet-Branca," what is it? Yeah, you've had it? It's good isn't it? It does the job. But, oh the taste.

-- Bill Cosby, "Fernet-Branca" from Fat Albert, 1973

You never forget your first time.

When you hold a shot glass of Fernet-Branca to your nose, the first thing that strikes you is the physicality of the smell, which, if such a thing existed, is like black licorice-flavored Listerine. Put it to your lips and tip it back, and the assault on the throat and sinuses is aggressively medicinal. For many so-called "Fergins" uninitiated to the drink, it can be accompanied by a feeling that may either bring a tear to the eye or lunch to the esophagus. As a bitter Italian aperitif of more than 40 herbs and spices, it most often gets compared to Campari and Jägermeister, though by measure of accuracy, it's equally similar to Robitussin or Pennzoil.

It's so difficult to love that James Hamilton-Paterson's Booker Prize-nominated novel Cooking With Fernet-Branca is a 281-page sendup of the taste, including stomach-turning recipes like otter with lobster sauce and Fernet-Branca.

If you can imagine getting punched squarely in the nose while sucking on a mentholated cough drop, you'll have an idea of Fernet-Branca's indelicate first impressions.

"I need 12 shots of Fernet with ginger," hollers a waiter at Hobson's Choice, a dyed-in-the-apron Fernet bar on Haight Street. The waiter wipes his forehead and corrects himself: "Fuck it. I'll just take the bottle."

Few are being introduced to the drink at Hobson's Choice tonight, home of the annual "Pouring 20s" party thrown in honor of bar owners and tenders who order at least 20 cases of Fernet-Branca a month. Much to the befuddled curiosity of Haight Street walk-ins, the bar is jammed with people with limitless enthusiasm for the black syrup and a couple of girls in flapper outfits, dressed to suit the evening's pun theme.

"I thought I was going to die the first time I tasted it," says Antoinette Cattani. As the West Coast's Fernet-Branca marketing impresario, the 34-year-old Cattani revels in her duties as tonight's host, but speaking of her first Fernet minibottle -- sufficiently warmed in a car trunk on a sweltering Los Angeles afternoon -- she holds her hands to her throat and sticks out her tongue. "I thought I was going to die. I actually might have gagged. It was terrible."

Even in the crowd of Fernet zealots her story is standard.

"I have to admit, my first experience was like, 'What the fuck?'" says 26-year-old Becky Licu, who with Cattani co-owns Barfly Promotions, a company that works with Fernet-Branca. "I wasn't prepared for something like that."

"It's an acquired taste first and foremost, like coffee or wine," says Hobson's Choice General Manager Chris Dickerson. "First time you have it is like, 'Argh! This is absolutely horrible.'

"That's because you're used to drinking Jäger," Dickerson continues. "And stuff with a lot of sugar. This is a lot crisper and cleaner, and you feel a lot better in the morning. It's terrible at first, but in five minutes -- it's amazing -- you'll feel a whole lot better. Then it's time for another one."

Tonight, Cattani and Licu -- who both have black hair and a seemingly insatiable thirst for the product they peddle -- move through the bar throwing back shots and chasing them with small glasses of ginger ale -- the style of drinking Fernet-Branca that is most popular in San Francisco. Most of the bar is 10 shots into the stuff when people start speaking the language of Fernet, so-called "Fernetonics," and telling slightly exaggerated stories of "Fernightmares," when their love for the drink got the best of them and they had to wake up the next day and have a glass of it to soothe their hangovers.

About The Author

Nate Cavalieri

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