Sunday, December 30, 2012

Try This Before Somebody Decides It's Uncool...

I have a confession to make: I am not interested in being cool. But there I was, standing with a co-worker during a lull in a big event at my job and the subject of Fernet came up. Not just any Fernet -- there are many Fernets on the market -- but Fernet Branca. I had half a bottle of this particular amaro at home and was lamenting not having brought it with me because this particular crew of bartenders would have cleared that space on my shelf in a matter of minutes. Which got me thinking....

Fernet Branca has become so popular that suggesting its powers are less than magical will make the popular crowd think less of you. John Barclay says this, "...[i]t is a class signifier, a secret handshake shared by Mixologists, Artisans, Urban gain entry into their smug underworld." Its popularity began on the West Coast, in San Francisco, where it has taken root so securely that they are alleged to drink more Fernet than any other city on earth.  Its reach stretched across America and settled in the East and has touched down in a certain type of bar, all across the country.  Fashionable Bartenders are ordering up rounds for friends and neophytes alike, talking about their time in San Francisco (or Argentina!), letting everyone in earshot know that they are cooler than you.  

But I can't imagine why this spirit has become the gatekeeper of the Cool Club. Don't get me wrong; it's good enough. I'm sipping some right now. Fernet has a purpose; it is useful to settle the stomach. It is the color of coffee, with a complex bitter-herb profile with a mint-forward flavor and a great deal of saffron. In fact, Fernet Branca controls 75% of the world's saffron.

The formulation is, of course, proprietary, but in addition to the saffron, the recipe includes -- but is definitely not limited to -- chamomile and myrrh, aloe, rhubarb and peppermint oil, all in a base of grape spirit. It tastes like Jagermeister, but not so syrupy. In fact, the "Fernet Face" is a meme so popular I swear I remember a social media campaign centered on it. Bartenders say it affords a burst of energy similar to a double espresso, which is why they can be seen sipping it before a shift or shooting it in the wee hours for a pick-me-up.  

In the age of ubiquitous coffeehouses and such a range of easily-purchased energy drinks (some actually already behind the bar - what could be more convenient?), to claim you drink Fernet for its energetic effects is as unconvincing to me as claiming to drink it for its flavor.  

It is not impossible that guys like Barclay are right, that bartenders are just drinking Fernet to be cool. The Bartender, like the Chef, is susceptible to trends; trends flow through our business.. New products, concepts, designs, recipes, all these things keep us interesting to our guests, ourselves and each other.  Some things, like the invention of the still, are great ideas. Other things, like this, well, we can probably live without.

But I'd like to think we're better than that. I'd like to think that we are not the shallow creatures who would choke down shots of something better sipped after dinner, at a leisurely pace, because we think it makes us look cool. While I am sure there are some who have that motive, I have another theory.

In our business, we are constantly tasting.  We taste new products, new recipes, we uncover old recipes.  Our palates get a workout. It may be that the bartender's palate is rather more elastic than a civilian's.  I would go even further than that, though. I would venture to suggest that, like a child watching televised violence and becoming inured to those images. a bartender is immune to "Karamel" vodka and lusts after the truly authentic, no matter how shocking it might be.

So when you have the chance, raise a glass of Fernet Branca. You might not love it, but it is real and true. There will be big, strange flavors, but they will not be from the Big, Strange Flavor Factory. Even if it should go out of fashion soon, and in a way I hope it does, the fact remains that you are drinking something that has been in production for over 150 years. If only for that reason, you owe yourself this experience. Sip it and decide for yourself what the fuss is about.

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