You walk up to the bar, slide comfortably into your stool, and order “the handshake.” Known as the industry’s underground drink of choice, “the handshake” is a shot of Fernet Branca.
This Italian liquor has been popping up on cocktail menus throughout the country for the past few years.
“Nobody knows the formula,” says Brandon Kemp, a bartender at The Bookhouse Pub and proprietor of Atlanta Concoction Group. “It’s like the Dr. Pepper of liquor.”
What we do know about Fernet Branca:
It came out of Milan, Italy in 1845. Known as an amaro, the liquorice-y, minty digestif was traditionally used for its medicinal properties to aid in digestion. It grew in popularity and spread to South America, where it was mixed most frequently with Coke, according to Kemp.
But then San Francisco, of course, got the trend going in America. “They are always pushing the envelope for classic cocktails,” Kemp says. “You don’t need 12 ingredients in a cocktail because the flavor profile is already complex.”
Black licorice, evergreen, saffron, winter mint, myrrh, herbal notes- was how Kemp described the liquor.
And Fernet Branca made its appearance in Atlanta over the past three years. Towkie Sears, a bartender at One Flew South, attributes the rise in popularity to the liquor’s sponsorship at Taste of Atlanta bar competition.
However, that isn’t the only competition this underground sensation ensues. Enter challenge coins. The exclusive quarter-sized coin is designed by each chapter of the U.S. Bartender’s Guild. Upon flipping out the coin at a bar, the bartender has to show their coin, or they buy a round of Fernet. If the bartender has their coin, the challenger buys the round.
“You have to be in the loop to get the coin,” Sears explains. “It helps if you service your local chapter.”
Kemp assures me that Fernet is approachable to those outside the industry. “I can’t tell you how much more pleasing it is to hear someone ask for a shot of Fernet over Jager,” he says. “Typically when people order that, they are going to be a bartender’s friend. They aren’t going to be drinking Long Island iced tea or lemon drop shots all night.”
Sears agreed. “That’s what we want, more people to know the handshake. It’s an interesting and weird drink, but it’s one of our (bartender’s) things.
It’s a game of “I Spy” for you now. You’ll notice Fernet listed in cocktails on menus ranging from Holeman & Finch Public House to Proof & Provision.
My goal next time at the bar: ask for “the handshake.” I’m curious to hear how it goes for you.