No Fernet, Never Fernet

It's a beautiful snowy day, which is a wonderful excuse to stay inside and put the finishing touches on a piece I've been working on. (Warning: strong opinions ahead.)

You see, I have a bone to pick with my friend Randy over at Summit Sips - whose posts are invariably excellent, but whose most recent, "The Ferrari: A Bartender's Handshake," contains the extremely questionable advice that one should ever, under any circumstances, drink Fernet Branca.

Of course, one should not. But it's not really Randy's fault. The whole world has gone mad over this stuff, and it's high time someone set them straight.

A wise man once said

"Fernet Branca is, in my view, the most foul drinking concoction yet conceived of by man. Yes, it's worse than Malort - and by a long shot. Yes, it's worse than Dr. McGillicuddy's peppermint schnapps. Yes, it's worse than plastic-bottle Popov vodka. It's like someone took a perfectly good bottle of Amaro Meletti and threw all three of those in there, with a little Aunt Jemima's for color. By what hanky-panky it has brainwashed so many otherwise-reasonable people into claiming that they like it, I have no idea."

Before adding:

"...don't get me started."

You may consider me thoroughly started. A shot of Fernet is described, in the Summit Sips post and elsewhere, as the "bartender's handshake," a sort of secret signal that you're in the club, you know your stuff, you're a real aficionado. It's not the only drink to have served in this role - the Negroni has, being similarly bitter and complex, but with the benefit of actually tasting good, which Fernet does not.

For those of you who have never had Fernet Branca, I commend you on your life choices. But if you want to know what it tastes like, try to imagine something that is, at once, far too sweet, far too bitter, and far too minty. A friend of mine (who claims, no doubt erroneously, to like the stuff) is fond of repeating the quip that it's "like mouthwash with delusions of grandeur." Others have likened it to motor oil, and who am I to say they're wrong?

Again, the bartender's handshake is a shot of this stuff. A shot of it. Knocked back, all at once, it's a bungee jump of a drink. It's often served with a chaser of Pabst Blue Ribbon, presumably to keep it down (or perhaps because satire has been obsolete since the seventies).

I have been served such shots by earnest, well-meaning bartenders with whom I'd connected and had a good conversation while at the bar. Bless their hearts, I don't blame them for it a bit. I seem like someone who would have drunk this particular Kool-Aid, which makes it a very kind and generous pour. But it also obliges me to do the damned shot with them, which rather takes the wind out of the sails of my gratitude.

In short, bartenders need a new handshake.

Literally anything else would be preferable. "Hey that was a nice conversation we had. How about a bracing shot of blue curaçao?" "Oh, yes, please - that sounds lovely!" "Have you tried our malt vinegar shrub? We make it with actual shrubs." "No, but I'd be delighted! A double, if you don't mind."

“Ah,” some at-once-smug-and-benighted soul will be saying about now, “But perhaps Fernet is simply too intense for you?” In a word, no.

Here is a non-comprehensive list of intense drinking experiences I've been known to enjoy:

  • Smith and Cross overproof Jamaican rum (my preferred sipping rum around the house until an acid reflux diagnosis put an end to that)
  • Jeppson's Malört
  • A Trinidad Sour
  • Grappa of dubious quality
  • Moxie
  • A Pink Gin made with the driest, Londoniest London Dry Gin available
  • Shots of dill- and horseradish-flavored vodka, drunk in the Russian style with an assortment of smoked, salted, and pickled fish and vegetables
  • Straight-up apple cider vinegar
  • Literally every amaro I've had that wasn't Fernet Branca. Meletti? Love it. Ferro China Baliva? Special ordered it from Italy before it was available in the 'States. Campari, Aperol? ¿Por qué no los dos? Letherbee Fernet? Pretty damned good, I have to say. Give me Strega, Cardamaro, Montenegro, Lucano, rucolino from Ischia, mamma mia, here we go: give me any herbal tincture you may care to procure, and I'll say “Give me more, but hold the damned Fernet.”

My favorite style of wine is the earthy, dry-as-a-bone, punch-you-in-the-face Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. My favorite style of rum is funky, flavorful Jamaican, with deep notes of molasses and the slightest eau de décomposition.

It's not me, it's the Fernet. I would eat that jumping-larva cheese from Sardinia before I'd shoot Fernet again. Unless I could shoot it with a gun, that sounds fun and would be fine.

For pity's sake, Fernet shots (and Malört shots for that matter – it's a good spirit, worth drinking, but no one in his right mind should ever shoot it) are the frat-bro “How many shots of PECTOPAH vodka can you do, pussy?” of the bartending world. I refuse to believe that anyone enjoys the flavor. People may enjoy the ritual, though I'd suspect most of them are either just pretending to or suffering from Stockholm Syndrome.

It's a garbage drink. If I used it to clean my drain and poured myself a shot of drain cleaner I'm not sure I'd know the difference.

The very first time I went to Tales of the Cocktail, I sought out the Fernet table, thinking that surely it had to be my fault, and surely the people who made the stuff would know how to use it in a palatable way. Ever expect to be disappointed but hope to be pleasantly surprised, and then somehow end up even more disappointed when you're not pleasantly surprised? Because I sure have! There was not a worthwhile beverage at that table, with the possible exception of the ginger ale they were ruining by adding Fernet to it.

Have you ever wondered what vodka would taste like if you added sugar and left a menthol cigarette in it for six months? Yeah, now you know.

San Francisco drinks it, and they're welcome to it. We all know the people in San Francisco are out of their minds. Too close to the international date line and the San Andreas fault line. Too many lines, it gunks up the brain. They can be forgiven.

The Argentines, too, because they mix their Fernet with Coke, which is the third-least-bad way to use Fernet, after “two drops at a time in a Hanky-Panky” and “as weedkiller.”

The Italians, too, because if they're going to condemn us to this foolish spirit they had better be drinking it themselves. They're welcome to say that it tastes good. They're welcome to believe it. They might not even be lying – after all, can we ever really be sure we've understood someone whose native language is not our own? Does meaning always survive translation? Perhaps the boundaries of “good” are different for an Italian speaker, and encompass not merely what an Anglophone would call “good,” but also some things an Anglophone would call “an abomination against heaven and earth.”

But the rest of us? Red-blooded Americans who aren't high on kale and burlesque? We should know better. We. Should. Know. Better.

Dear friends, acquaintances, colleagues, strangers, and people with whom I will someday share a strong and lasting mutual hatred over this very issue, I offer you the following things to keep in mind if you do like Fernet:

  • You don't.
  • No, really, you've been brainwashed. Try to taste the Fernet next time. Maybe sip it instead of swallowing it in one gulp. Pay attention. You'll notice it's terrible.
  • If the people who invented it don't shoot it, you shouldn't either. This also applies to Malört and Jägermeister; it does not apply to Patrón or Fireball.
  • If you think you like Fernet, wash your lying mouth out with soap, and then try Amaro Meletti, which has all the flavors Fernet would have if they weren't being swamped by sugar, bitterness, and enough mint to numb your entire body.
  • If you think “minty herbal bitter delicious sweet thing” isn't a contradiction in several terms, crack a can of Moxie. You know who liked Moxie? Ted Williams, Calvin Coolidge, and E.B. White. You know who liked Fernet Branca? Nazis.
  • I'm not even kidding, Hitler's SS bodyguards used to sit around and drink Fernet Branca, and mess with the one guy who was injured and couldn't taste things anymore by giving him something else that was deliberately foul (as opposed to Fernet Branca, which seems to have stumbled upon foulness entirely by accident).
  • And isn't it interesting that somehow after you mix Fernet Branca with literal Nazis, the Nazis seem like bigger assholes than they did when the only thing you knew about them was that they were Nazis?

If you still like Fernet at this point in the post, there is a 67% chance that you, too, are an asshole Nazi. 

All non-Nazi friends, rejoice in your non-Nazitude, and join me in defeating this heinous miscarriage of drinking once and for all. This country is overdue for some Carrie Nation-style hatchetations, and I say we start by smashing the Fernet. Wherever it may be, however much or little of it there may be, crack, bludgeon, and bash in the bottles until there is nothing left but foul-smelling sticky liquid pooling on the floor. Then set the whole damned thing on fire. You will have done the world a great service.

And for all those ever inclined to seek out or offer a bartender's handshake: broaden your horizons beyond Fernet Branca. I have faith in you. You can do so much better than this crap.