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Industry Insider: Fernet Branca

Y4_15fernetbou 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.

4_15_fernetHowever, 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.

-By Alexa Lampasona (@activetastylife) for the Food & More blog

13 comments Add your comment

Drew

April 15th, 2014
9:37 am

Now if only we could get a better selection of amaro in the Atlanta area. Unless I’m mistaken, Atlanta distributors don’t even carry much of a selection.

Q

April 15th, 2014
10:54 am

Hipsters 17
Rest of us 0

Why the hell do we have to call it a “handshake”? “Challenge coins”? Why do we have to make everything stupid and trendy? Just order a g** d*** drink already.

Ned Ludd

April 15th, 2014
11:28 am

Agreed Q-some things should transcend trendiness Fernet is one example of an Amaro-so many flavors, so many distinct subtleties. Should be enjoyed slowly and savored. Tower on Piedmont carries several. Antica Posta on East Paces has several great offerings. By far the most sensational place to try many varieties is The Rum House in The Hotel Edison in Manhattan. They have quite a few selections. Old dark bar with great crowd, wonderful staff, and unique atmosphere.

Q

April 15th, 2014
12:17 pm

Hah, I was in that bar last weekend, waiting for a show to start at the Barrymore Theatre. Loved it! Genuine charm. The perfect antidote to the contrived attempts at speak-easy recreations that are so hard to avoid these days. “No, sir, your waxed mustache will not, in fact, make my drink taste any better. Now put down that F. Scott Fitzgerald coloring book and pour me a freaking neat whiskey, please. No, not the stuff that was distilled in a 5th-floor walk-up in Brooklyn, thank you.”

Cheers!

loomco

April 15th, 2014
4:04 pm

Drew, you should stop in at Pinewood Tippling Room in Decatur. They have shelves full of Amaros (Amari?) and Fernet from at least 4 different countries.

Ned Ludd

April 15th, 2014
5:42 pm

Q–Loved you in the James Bond movies—too bad you couldn’t find a bar more convenient to the Barrymore. Hope you also tried the Edison Cafe–truly one of the finest deli restaurants in Manhattan. Classic dishes in a setting that hasn’t changed since Edison opened the hotel!

loomco–Thanks for the suggestion, never had the pleasure but after looking it up The Pinewood is a must visit.

Drew

April 16th, 2014
8:51 am

Thanks for the suggestion loomco. I’m merely speculating, but I think after just a few drinks at bar prices I could have purchased an entire bottle of my own for enjoyment at home. I have only a couple bottles myself… that I brought back from New York.

I’ll check out Tower next time I’m driving by but my impression is that a good selection is not easy to get here in Georgia. Fernet Branca is certainly available, I’ve seen Cynar too… Again, I could certainly be wrong but based on the several calls I’ve made to local liquor stores, a good selection is not readily available for purchase because the distributors do not carry more than just a couple/few brands.

Honestly, I’m hoping someone proves me wrong.

Q

April 16th, 2014
10:02 am

Try Decatur Package if you haven’t already. Not a large store, but their selection (on all wines, beer and spirits) and prices are strong.

Baltisraul....

April 16th, 2014
12:17 pm

Ned & Q…..great reviews and commentary by you guys. Bushmills or Makers Mark w. 1 cube for me. When in NYC, I always stay at the Soldiers’, Sailors’, Marines’, Coast Guard & Airmens’ Club (SSMAC) @ 37th & Lex.That way I have a few more $ to spend for food and spirits, or maybe a cheap rug at ABC.

Edward

April 16th, 2014
5:28 pm

You old farts are beginning to sound like villains from Scooby Doo. ;-) Now, pour me an icy-chilled green Chartreuse or a Sambuca Opal Nera.

Ned Ludd

April 16th, 2014
6:06 pm

Dang Edward, woulda gotten away with it if it weren’t for you kids! Chartreuse (green or yellow) is most certainly an acquired taste. Something about that peppery aftertaste. Guess I need to keep trying.

Baltisraul....

April 17th, 2014
8:37 am

Edward……”youth, it is wasted on the young”!

berry steve

April 17th, 2014
3:29 pm

@Edward_____we play the hand we are given. Just glad to be around to comment! My guess you are not 28 yrs old any longer, either?