Where and How to Drink Fernet in Dallas

Categories: Drinking

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In a recent episode of Anthony Bourdain's The Layover, he and famed English chef Fergus Henderson bond over a shot of something called Fernet Branca, seated at a London sidewalk café for an afternoon pick me-up.

"Steadying," Bourdain declares after shooting the dark brown, slightly ominous syrupy liquid. Curious as to the identity of this mysterious elixir that looked something like Jagermeister, I turned to Google for information. Wikipedia identified Fernet as an amaro, or bitter. An Italian herbal spirit typically served post-meal as a digestif, it's rumored to contain everything from psilocybin and codeine to fermented beets and wormwood; slightly more realistic guesses include aloe, rhubarb and saffron.

Similar to good ol' Colonel Sanders' blend of 11 herbs and spices, the actual ingredients of Fernet remain a closely guarded secret. It's produced in Italy by a distiller called Fratelli Branca, and was first concocted in 1845 and marketed as a health elixir, similar to the original Coca Cola. (Man, it must've been awesome to be a sickly person back in the mid-1800s; complain of menstrual cramps or a stomachache and you'd get a prescription for a magical potion containing cocaine or hard liquor.) These days many people still swear by Fernet as a hangover soother.

So what does it taste like? I can only describe the taste of Fernet as a sinister lovechild of Jagermeister and Rumpleminze: dark, bitter, medicinal, herbal, with a minty burn. An acquired taste, surely. In a city where craft cocktails are starting to become commonplace but Grey Goose and Patron still mostly reign supreme, I wondered, is anyone actually drinking this stuff?

On a recent visit to The Chesterfield, owner Lucky Campbell was more than happy to yap about Fernet for a bit. He explained that despite hailing from Italy, it's actually much more popular in Argentina (a country with a very large Italian population). A Fernet and Coke is practically their national drink. Trade routes from South America brought Fernet up through San Francisco, where it took a firm hold.

These days San Franciscans consume a whopping 35 percent of Fernet produced, the most popular delivery method being a straight shot chased with ginger ale. This is often referred to as a "bartender's handshake," a sort of secret bonding ritual often poured by bartenders for other bartenders to say hello or goodbye, viewed as either a friendly gesture or a dare, depending on your tastebuds. The popular R Bar, located in the notoriously seedy Tenderloin area of downtown San Fran, goes through over a hundred bottles a month.

By contrast, The Chesterfield sells maybe half a bottle a week (but goes through three -- read between the lines on that one). "People here in Dallas love sugary stuff like Tuaca, but we're slowly catching up with the coasts," Campbell told me. I asked him to make me a Fernet cocktail, interested to see how the intense liqueur would play with other ingredients.

He responded with The Revenge, a play on the classic Negroni -- Fernet, sweet vermouth, Campari and soda. Vivid orange-red in color and served over an abundance of crushed ice, it's a gentle way to acquaint yourself with the herbal bitterness that is Fernet.

The bartender on duty at Black Swan (not Gabe) when I stopped in for a couple drinks recently admittedly didn't know much about Fernet. He said they'd had the same bottle since they opened, and he'd only ever seen one or two patrons order it -- always straight up. My questions inspired him to open the bottle for a sniff, and he recoiled in horror. "Why would anyone want to drink that?" wondered a tatted up guy a couple stools down.

Ian Reilly, the bartender on duty at The People's Last Stand, raised an eyebrow when I asked him about Fernet, having spotted a bottle amongst the hundreds of others along the back of their bar. He explained that ordering a shot of Fernet is a good way to get a bartender's attention, to show them that you're a serious cocktail enthusiast if you're getting brushed off.

As we talked, Reilly mixed me up a Silent Night, a recipe he came up with one night when the bar was especially quiet. A dangerously potent combination of Fernet, Luxardo maraschino liqueur, and Carpano Antica ("the granddaddy of sweet vermouths"), this drink is no joke and all alcohol, but the sweetness of the Luxardo and the vermouth tempers the Fernet's bitterness and allows the minty and herbal notes to come to the forefront.

Fernet is definitely an acquired taste, but it's worth a try if you're looking for a hair-of-the-dog remedy after a night of getting hammered, or trying to impress a bartender with your knowledge of obscure spirits. It probably won't be my new shot of choice, but next time I feel like one of these damn Dallas mixologists isn't taking me seriously, I might pull that trick out of my back pocket.

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25 comments
snakeweed
snakeweed

All my argie friends talk about how much they love this, only time I ever saw it was in vegas so I had to try it and didn't care too much for it... maybe because I had it with pepsi instead of coke (?) will definitely give it another try now that I know we have it here.

therealmccoy
therealmccoy

"Bartenders Handshake" has been on the menu at the Cedars Social for over a year now.  Funny how people never go to the real source for the movement happening in Dallas.

Ralphy
Ralphy

I prefer a Mirto when I am jonesing for an italian apertif.  It is harder to find in the US but is superb.  It is made from the berries of myrtle plant in Sardinia. Mirto has a garnet red colour, and scents of myrtle, sage and other aromatic herbs as well as cocoa.

trudat
trudat

...not to change the subject - but in the same vein of strange potables; where in Dallas can you buy a shot of absinthe?

RGV41
RGV41

I prefer Zwack or Underberg

Josh's broken records
Josh's broken records

Quite sure Jon D likes Fernet, and that's plenty enough reason to call Hipster on it.  How about drink specials? Best shake joint dining? Do or Don't cut your steak?

Snack Perkins
Snack Perkins

Thanks for exposing this to the masses, Scooter. This was my go to move to get in with decent bartenders. Now that every noob who reads the observer knows the password, I'm going to have to start making them mixtapes à la Portlandia. 

Also, they make the Argentine coke concoction at campO. I've also sipped it at Tate's and the newly opened Foundry. A good way to describe it is "listerine-y" 

Titus Groan
Titus Groan

Is it available at any liquor store around here?  How much does a bottle go for?  What's the alcohol content?

Daniel Hopkins
Daniel Hopkins

Great post. Been meaning to try a shot of this stuff for a while.

Simon McDonald
Simon McDonald

This is the drink of choice amongst staff here @ The Libertine Bar.  We go through about 3 bottles or more a week

twinwillow
twinwillow

My well travelled father once recommended my drinking Fernet Branca after getting food poisoning in Paris while on a business trip. It saved my life!

It's the perfect digestive after a heavy diner.

Whitney Filloon
Whitney Filloon

Thanks for the tip. Honestly I avoid Cedars Social because every time I've gone it takes 15+ minutes to get a drink. Call me impatient but I want my alcohol delivered promptly.

guest
guest

I just wish they'd bring back the chicken and waffles

Ralphy
Ralphy

What "movement"?

twinwillow
twinwillow

I had a digestive made from prunes in Amalfi once that was delicious. Worked great the next day!

Whitney Filloon
Whitney Filloon

Absinthe Lounge... People's Last Stand (they have am insanely wide selection of different hard to find/obscure liquors).. Probably the Chesterfield, Private Social as well.

Titus Groan
Titus Groan

Why do you need a special "move" to "get in" with a bartender?  Just be a regular and tip well.

Whitney Filloon
Whitney Filloon

It's 90 proof, so pretty stout. 750ml bottle typically runs about $25-30.

twinwillow
twinwillow

I've seen it everywhere but haven't bought a bottle in a while. Not sure of the alcohol content But, I think it's fairly high.Call Specs or Goody Goody for pricing.

Steve
Steve

Too bad it doesn't make you assholes more polite to your patrons during off-peak hours.

Simon McDonald
Simon McDonald

Sorry that you think that Steve.  Come by and let me buy you a Fernet.  Im here behind the bar on the of-peak days of Friday and Saturday afternoons. 

Whitney Filloon
Whitney Filloon

Oops, I was looking at a bottle of Luxardo Fernet (distiller best known for producing Maraschino liqueur). The Fernet made by Fratelli Branca is indeed 80 proof

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