I recently checked out RN74’s late-night happy hour with a friend who had yet to taste Fernet Branca, the bitter digestive that’s a favorite among craft bartenders across the land. Fernet is often associated with the city of San Francisco, home of RN74 the original, where the bar-going crowd is far more familiar with the herbally concoction. (If you’d like to experience that phenomenon via a catchy tune, click on this orange text.)
So my friend asked for Fernet—a shot is $2 after 10pm at the downtown wine bar. Immediately, a wave of concern washed over the face of our server. “Have you tried it?” She wanted to know. Also, she said something about Fernet tasting like Jägermeister, which it does in the way that freshly made buffalo mozzarella tastes like the waxy stuff that comes pre-shredded in a plastic bag.
My friend ordered the Fernet despite the warning, and didn’t like it. I would venture to guess that most people don’t like Fernet upon first sip, though cocktail-types may not readily admit as much. Fernet, and most amari, are, in my experience, acquired tastes. Your taste buds need to acclimatize. The aspects of amari that perplex the palate upon first contact are the same that make them so obsession-worthy: They are complex and challenging, with flavors that taste clear and unmuddled but not always readily identifiable. Drink them enough, and your go-to elixirs may start seeming bland by comparison.
Capitol Hill bar Tommy Gun recently introduced a Fernet special as well. On Mondays (industry night) a shot of Fernet and a PBR tall boy are $5. That’s a good deal for the initiated, but newbies may want to start out by drinking Fernet in a cocktail. Rob Roy in Belltown has a variation on the Dark and Stormy in which Fernet is combined with lime and ginger beer, that’s $10. But really you can go to any good cocktail bar, tell the bartender you want to experience the Branca, and go from there.