Italian Immigrants Help Fernet Thrive in San Francisco

Amy Cavanaugh

A few months ago, I was sitting on a barstool at Smuggler’s Cove, a San Francisco tiki bar, when a group of people next to me started talking about fernet.

“It’s a bartender’s drink,” said one. “Everyone’s drinking fernet.”

They are—it’s impossible to spend time in San Francisco without seeing how huge a role fernet, the bitter Italian liqueur with a strong minty flavor, has on the city’s drinking culture. Fernet-Branca is the most prevalent, but you’ll also see other brands, like the Czech Republic’s R. Jelinek Fernet, Colorado’s Fernet Leopold and San Francisco’s own Fernet Francisco. Fernet was in at least one cocktail at nearly every bar I went to in San Francisco, and each bar had several varieties available.

But it isn’t just San Francisco with a serious fernet obsession. Pick up a cocktail list anywhere these days, in cities and small towns, and you’ll find bitter liqueurs and amaro—fernet, Cynar and Campari—along with more-obscure offerings, including many domestically made takes on Italian amaro. That rise was slow in coming, but it would not have been possible without fernet, and America’s fernet obsession would not have been possible without Italian immigrants.

Bitter Beginnings

San Francisco’s Northern Italian migration arrived en masse about the era of World War I; this population brought their native digestivos with them—including Fernet-Branca,” says Duggan McDonnell, author of Drinking the Devil’s Acre: A Love Letter from San Francisco and Her Cocktails (Chronicle Books, 2015).

Eduardo Branca says that his family’s Fernet-Branca was brought to America around 1870, and to Argentina about a decade earlier. The Italians carried along their bitter liqueurs, though the taste for bitter digestive spirits remained within the immigrant community for decades. Around Prohibition, Fernet-Branca and other European-style liqueurs, like Jeppson’s Malört in Chicago, were safe—their bitterness was considered medicinal, so they were sold in pharmacies. Eventually, consumption grew and Fernet-Branca’s parent company, Fratelli Branca, added distilleries outside Buenos Aires in Argentina, and in New York, where a distillery was located in Tribeca.

In Italy and among immigrants, Fernet-Branca was mainly consumed after dinner as a digestif or in an espresso, though around the mid-1990s, the drink caught on in San Francisco and Argentina with bartenders. In Argentina, they made Fernet con Coca (cola), while in San Francisco, they served it as shots with ginger beer to cut the bitterness.

As the craft cocktail movement grew, so did fernet’s use in cocktails. In San Francisco, Alembic uses Fernet Leopold in a fernet sour, while Lolinda, an Argentinian steakhouse, serves a fernet and cola during happy hour, as well as a fernet swizzle, made with Fernet-Branca, Carpano Antica, orange juice, cinnamon syrup and lime, swizzled and topped with soda and bitters. At Beretta, Bar Manager Cali Gold turns it into Jell-O shots. She also serves an Italian cola during brunch that she makes with bianco vermouth, red vermouth, fernet and soda. “Both vermouths have a flavor profile that can be very reminiscent of cola,” Gold notes.

Ben Bleiman, managing partner of San Francisco’s Tonic Nightlife Group, which has had Fernet-Branca on tap at several of its bars since 2010, says that San Francisco’s role in the cocktail movement helped fernet flourish in America.

“San Francisco is the heart of craft cocktail culture,” he says. “You can really trace it back to a group of people that were passionate about cocktails in San Francisco… The way the industry goes, people follow.”

New Distillations

It’s not just bartenders putting their own spin on fernet—domestic distillers have been making their own versions of the bitter liqueur for a few years, using local ingredients to make the spirit more appealing to the American palate. In most cases, that means a little less bitter, while in others, distillers evoke American nostalgia with specific botanicals.

“Fernet-Branca made it possible for all these crazy fernets we have now, all these amaros and other stuff,” Bleiman notes.

At Thomas & Sons Distillery in Portland, Ore., head distiller Seth O’Malley makes Townshend’s Pacific Northwest Fernet with regional ingredients, including Douglas fir, Willamette hops and birch bark.“I took the basic structure of fernet, and I plugged in Pacific Northwest botanicals where I could,” he says. “We use birch and sage and some things that evoke a sense of place.”

In Portland, Maine, Liquid Riot makes Fernet Michaud by infusing an organic wheat-based neutral grain spirit with 22 different botanicals, including wintergreen and dandelion, and aging it in Maine blueberry wine barrels. Since 2012, Colo.’s Leopold Bros. has made Fernet Leopold, a “Highland Amaro,” with ingredients of the region, including elderflower, honeysuckle and chamomile. “We use American ingredients,” says Todd Leopold. “To me, the most American is spearmint, like Doublemint Gum.”

Naturally, there’s a San Francisco fernet as well—Fernet Francisco, made with 12 botanicals by Max Rudsten, Ben Flajnik and distiller Farid Dormishian of Falcon Spirits.“We live in California and have access to a bounty of ingredients, so we wanted to give San Francisco a craft version of fernet,” Flajnik says.

“Everything we use is native or thrives in California with the exception of cinnamon, which is from India,” he continues. “The base of our product is rhubarb, and spearmint, peppermint, chamomile, orange peel, cardamom and cinnamon are the most prevalent.”

While the love of fernet and bitter spirits has spread across the U.S., the spirit still maintains its strongest hold on San Francisco. “In San Francisco, fernet is the bloodline that connects communities,” Rudsten says. “It’s the one thing you can drink and everyone puts up their hands and says ‘cheers!’ It connects the insulated communities.”

— Amy Cavanaugh is the Senior Editor of Plate.

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