Fernet. More specifically — Fernet Branca. This particular brand of the strange, almost punishing Italian amaro is a calling card of sorts between most of Boston's better bartenders. A customer who is asked to share a shot of fernet at the end of the night with their bartender knows they have been accepted as a friend. What exactly is this stuff and how did it get a hold on Boston's drink makers? Eater asked Kirsten Amann — better known as Kitty — to explain it. Amann is the local brand ambassador for the Branca family, who have been making their version of fernet for nearly 200 years. She explains how she got the job as a (then) non-drinker of fernet, tells a story of someone who took fernet on a very strange trip, and divulges that she once wondered whether anyone actually likes to drink it.
Since not all our readers have had Fernet Branca, how would you describe it? It's not the most user-friendly drink.
(laughs) Welcome to my life. It's an interesting product to sell for that reason. Half the time I'm like (sing-song childish voice) "It's really yucky, you're not going to like it." Then half the time I'm trying to emasculate dudes into drinking it. "I'm a ditzy blonde girl and I can drink six shots of it. You can't handle it." But to someone who's never tried it, I explain it's a bitter herbal liqueur that's consumed in Italy as a digestif. It's designed to settle your stomach after a meal. It's really herbaceous, too — there're forty different herbs and spices. I'll have someone taste it in three sips, like some do with tequila. The first sip is just alcohol, heat, and bitterness. But the second time your mouth is seasoned so you get the herbs, the saffron, mint — all the different flavors. But the third sip actually tastes a little sweet, like licorice. It's a cool trick, because there's no actual sugar.
I usually describe it as Jagermeister for adults or a cross between Anbesol and Pennzoil.
(laughs) I love that! Ben Sandroff says it's like brushing your teeth and getting punched in the face at the same time.
You are the face of Fernet Branca in Boston. How did that happen?
The first time I tried fernet, I thought it was disgusting. It was super foul. I think Jamie Bissonnette gave it to me while I was at Toro — probably right around when I started. I made myself drink it because all of the cool kids drank it. I had a really bad experience which I will not recount for you because I don't want my parents to find out about it. Suffice to say, it meant I didn't drink it for at least a year. Joy Richard is one of my best friends and runs the bar at Citizen. She's always sold a ton of fernet through her bars. They were the first place in Boston to have it on tap. She told me Branca was hiring a brand ambassador. I was really busy and wasn't really considering it, but I went to the meeting anyway. This was when I wasn't drinking fernet at all. I would just drink tequila when people got shots.
I had gone on brand ambassador interviews before. Every time they wanted someone with more sales experience so I didn't think I was going to get this job and marched into the interview with an attitude of "whatever." So I said whatever I felt with this blind confidence presuming he wasn't going to hire me. I told him, "I'm going to get a baby blue Mini Cooper to match the bikes and I am going to put a big Fernet Branca eagle on the side. And I probably need a Vespa." So I went on and on expecting him to tell me to get the hell out of there. But he thought they were actually great ideas and ten days later I was hired. In retrospect, hiring the right brand rep is a lot like dating. I can totally understand why I didn't get the other jobs.
How did you finally become a convert?
Well, I had to start drinking it. I wasn't going to not drink my own product. At first, I thought I'd be better at the job because I didn't like it as much as everyone else. Within two weeks, I was craving a shot at 2 o'clock in the afternoon and it was all over. Any ideas I had of not drinking it were out the window.
It's funny to hear that. It's not dissimilar from most people's first fernet stories. They hate it until they love it. I only met one person who ever liked it on their first try.
It happens here and there. I've done seminars about the science of taste. One of the things we learned is that your sensitivity to bitterness is genetic. I'm actually predisposed to like sweeter things. So it's kind of weird I like fernet. And the reason I do is completely situational. It's because I'm around friends.
Do you think there's an emperor's new clothes aspect to fernet where no one actually likes it?
(laughs) I haven't thought of it like that before. There was a period where I was turned off by fernet because I thought everyone was just pretending to like it. But it becomes a ritual, and you can train your palate to like something. People like it because it makes them part of a club. It's the thing we all drink. People are drawn to that. It's an interesting brand because it's not something you drink because it tastes good, because it doesn't taste good to most people. And the way we drink it is weird too, because it's actually meant to be sipped.
The head of the Branca family is a count. Count Branca came to visit Boston a few months ago. What was his reaction to watching Americans just throw it back?
Oh, he's all about it. He drinks it the exact same way. I've never met someone who can drink as much as Count Branca. It's crazy, it's literally in his blood. The rest of the Italians don't mind, really, because drinking it by the shot means we drink so much of it. "We may not get it, but have at it!"
Who are the big accounts in the area?
The biggest are Citizen, The Franklin, Toro, jm Curley, Coppa. Cornwalls does a ton. Silvertone and Starlite of course are really high on the list. Then there's the whole question: are people selling it or just drinking it and giving it away?
I interviewed Josh Childs from Silvertone and Starlite earlier, and asked him how fernet became a thing in Boston. He said Tom Mastricola and Garrett Harker — who were then working at No. 9 Park — would drink at Silvertone every night. They asked him to start bringing it in, and it exploded from there. Then Garrett started Eastern Standard ?
Yeah, it was all Garrett and it just exploded with Eastern Standard. There's a lot of lore associated with the product, like how it's made.
Like the urban legend that the Branca family sets the price of saffron?
Right, they don't. But they do consume a ton of it. I just heard a great story yesterday. I was at a liquor store in Providence. This guy walked in looking to buy beer and I offered him a taste. He had had it before. He had gone climbing for some ridiculous amount of time — like four weeks — in Argentina. You could only carry what was on your back — water purifiers and the like. This one other guy packed a two liter bottle of Coca Cola and a bottle of fernet. When they got to the biggest peak and were celebrating, he whipped out the fernet, and that was the first time this guy I met ever tasted it.
That guy needs a fernet challenge coin. Tell me about the coins, I know they're a bit of a secret.
They were invented by a Las Vegas market manager, as a riff on military tradition where you get a coin for different missions. If you go to an officer's club or people are out in uniform, you pull out your challenge coin. Anyone in the group missing theirs would have to buy a round. If everyone has one, the person who issued the challenge would have to pay. The fernet coins are similar. There are some rules. You have to have it on you at all times. You must be able to produce it in less than 4 steps. You're not supposed to give it away or lose it. The only person who can replace it is the person who gave it to you. I like to punish people for at least a couple rounds if they give the coin away. Just because you're friends with Kitty doesn't mean you get an endless supply of coins. The only person with an endless supply of coins is me.
Is there anyone in the industry who openly admits to not liking fernet?
It's funny, once people get to know me, they'll apologize. "I'm sorry Kitty, I just don't like it." I don't care! I get it. I didn't used to like either. Beau Sturm at Trina's doesn't like it. But he likes the people coming to his bar and drinking it.
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