If you’ve been to lounges, bars and some clubs in Shanghai lately, you’ll notice a secret drink among the F&B set that I want to shine some light on - I’m talking about the liquid love of my life, Fernet Branca.
It’s a diabolical, awe inspiring, saffron-laced beauty, and once you manage to contain its bold and bitter flavors, you will have taken one step further into mastery of the night.
But first, some background. Invented in 1845 by Bernardino Branca in Milan, Fernet, a member of the amaro (Italian for bitters) family, was initially a medicine used for all sorts of old time ailments like ‘lady hysteria.’
It actually does serve a purpose, however. As a digestive it'll settle your stomach, and as a bar tool it'll give you a burst of energy more intense then a double espresso, leaving you baptized in Italian herbals and golf ball-eyed awake.
To be honest, Fernet is a bartender drink. It’s dark, disgusting, vile, evil and unabashedly brilliant – possibly the worst thing you can ever drink, and possibly why we bartenders drink it.
We have a choice of anything at the bar, and time after time we reach for the Fernet. The point is that we've trained ourselves (with grimaces and pride) to like this black gold, and also to pass it on to our friends and hapless passers-by and give them a glimpse into our little world behind the bar.
If anything, Fernet is more then a drink; it’s a nod, a handshake, a coded message that lets pourer and imbiber know of a special club not everyone knows of. A challenge that not all are willing to face, but yea to those who walk in the valley of the shadow of death.
The level of Fernet devotion doesn’t end there; a few years ago, Fernet started producing Challenge Coins, to be passed, traded and occasionally stolen among industry insiders. An enameled coin to be carried around at all times, when you go to any bar that serves Fernet Branca, you pop that bad boy on the bar counter and wait until the bartender shows you theirs.
If it’s a hip or informed bar they will either have the coin, or know that they need to buy you a shot of Fernet in return. However, if they have a coin, then you buy the shot.
Fernet Branca has had two specially commissioned China coins in the last year, but how to get one? You’ll need to get one of us bartenders drunk enough to give it to you.
Logan R. Brouse, proprietor and mixologist of Logan’s Punch Bar, has run bars and clubs in Shanghai for over six years. In between hangovers, he puts pen to paper to record his pontifications on the drink industry.