March 1st, 2007
Fernet Branca – Jäger for men
In certain Boston bars, if you see a group of people drinking shots of brown liquid poured from a dark green bottle, the people probably work in a restaurant and the liquid is probably Fernet Branca. Fernet (fer-NETT), as devotées call it, is among the broad range of intense, botanical-infused spirits classified as bitters. These include highly concentrated potions administered to drinks by the drop (Angostura, Peychaud’s, orange bitters) and herbal spirits that you can drink straight or base cocktails on (Campari, Aperol, Jägermeister, Fernet). Fernet is made in Italy with 27 different herbs (one of them, gentian root, will be recognizable to anyone familiar with Angostura bitters or Moxie) and is aged in oak casks for a year.
Fernet most often gets compared to Jägermeister, the German bitters that became so popular 15 or 20 years ago that it marketed its own chiller-dispenser to bars (yeah, it’s that rectangular metal box with the stained plastic tubes sticking out of it, right next to the Apple Pucker). However, it makes the sweeter, slightly lower-in-alcohol Jägermeister seem suitable for children. Jackson Cannon, bar manger at Eastern Standard, calls it “Jäger for men.” The first time you taste Fernet, it literally assaults your senses. It’s intensely bitter, peppery and mentholated. ‘I can’t believe I just swallowed that,’ may be your first thought. But, intrigued, you try it again. You like that cleaned-out buzz, that feeling that your insides have been sandblasted. The next thing you know, you’re working in a restaurant.
Why do waiters, bartenders and chefs gravitate toward this stuff? Well … It’s a badass drink that very few people know about, much less like. Drinking it conveys both that you have an advanced palate and that you embrace the ridiculous. And it’s the antithesis of all the insipid Cosmopolitans and Grey Goose martinis that restaurants churn out to earn their rent money.
I’m not sure when Fernet became the de rigueur libation among restaurant industry personnel and their companions. Many drink trends move from the West Coast to the East Coast, and San Francisco is by far the U.S. capitol of Fernet consumption. Check out SF Weekly’s detailed treatment of San Fran’s Fernet obsession, “The Myth of Fernet.”
Bostonians appear to have entered the race, though. Eastern Standard, Green Street, the Independent and Deep Ellum all serve cocktails made with Fernet. Jackson claims that Eastern Standard is the leader in sales. “It’s impossible that another account in Mass. is even close to ES!” I’m not going to argue with him; I was at Eastern Standard recently with a group of bartenders for whom mere shots of the liquor wouldn’t do; they ordered a whole damn bottle. Granted, they shared it with the kitchen staff.