Last night a Fernet saved my life.

Fernet Branca

If you live in our lovely city by the bay, then you may already be familiar with this potent elixir of joy.

But if you are visiting this blog from somewhere other than San Francisco or Argentina (welcome, fellow Enthusiasts!) you may not know much about this local hero of a beverage.

For us, Fernet is an “industry drink”—the “industry,” in this case, being the one that is often ironically referred to as “hospitality.”  This would include restaurant, hotel, theme park, general tourism, and though I have no experience with it, I’m pretty sure retail overlaps quite a bit. For the purposes of this post, I speak about Fernet from the POV of the corporate restaurant sweatshop worker, as that is how yours truly became quite the fan of this little bit o’ Darth Vader in a glass.

It’s bad. I mean, really bad. For non-industry people, just the smell is enough to put them off drinking for a good long time. They look at you in bewildered confusion—why on earth would anyone voluntarily drink this stuff?

For industry folk, it’s the Amex Black card of shots. It puts you in an elite group of Enthusiasts of which not all are allowed, nay, even invited—to join. Logan B at Metrowize puts it very succinctly: “We have a choice of anything at the bar and time after time we go for the Fernet. The point being is that we’ve trained ourselves, with grimaces and pride to like this black sludge. To pass it on to our friends and hapless passer byes—and give them a glimpse into the secret world behind the bar. If anything, Fernet is more than a drink, it’s a nod, a handshake, a coded message … a challenge that not all can face, but yea to those who walk in the valley of the shadow of death.”

And night after night, scores of bartenders, waitstaff, hosts and bar managers (the cool ones at least) as well as countless others in hotel, retail and customer service drink the stuff by the liter. Black shotfull after black shotfull, one green bottle after another, just minutes after the time clock punches them out (and occasionally shortly after it’s punched them in).

For those of you who do not, or have not had the joy of being part of this industry, the ritual goes like this: you punch out of yet another day of bosses that can’t spell, forced 10 minute breaks and tourist chuckleheads wanting “that thing we had when we visited back in ’93 … you guys still do that, right?”

Bartender pours you a nice healthy shot in a rocks glass, and one for him/herself (as is custom).

A ginger back is offered. You refuse. Training wheels are for beginners. You exchange a knowing glance with the bartender, tap the shot glass on the bar, and knock the black liquid back in one quaff.

It’s black, acrid, smells like your grandmother’s medicine chest and the vapors burn your nostril hairs. It tastes like mouthwash (old school original Listerine, not new improved Grape Chill Listerine or whatever the Nancyboys use to clean their sweaty mouths these days…) mixed with iodine, Vicks Vaporub, licorice, lawn clippings and (probably) orphan’s tears.

What I mean is that it’s bitter.

And it burns. All the way down.

You get it. You know why you drink this stuff. It’s about that which doesn’t kill you making you stronger. It’s the liquid version of the scene in Good Will Hunting, you know, when Matt Damon is telling Robin Williams about his father abusing him:

Will: He used to just put a belt, a stick, and a wrench on the kitchen table and say, “choose.”
Sean: Well, I gotta go with the belt there.
Will: I used to go with the wrench.
Sean: Why?
Will: Cause fuck him, that’ why. (Source: iMdb)

It’s a couple of ounces of “fuck them” in a glass, telling this crappy suckhole of a job to bring it on—they can have your body, your mind and your time, but they sure as shit can’t have your soul.

And then … the magic happens. It blooms.

From the core of your body, all the way up into your head—a vaporous, mysterious flower of warmth and fellowship for all humankind permeating the whole of your being.

And you settle into your barstool, because you’re off the clock until this hellhole of a corporate restaurant robs you of another six to eight hours of your life tomorrow. But until then, this time is yours.

And the stories start to flow. As do the shots, and the laughter, the frustrations and the bummed cigarettes that you smoke by the side dumpster, even though you are off the clock and could go smoke by the door like the straights. But you’re not going to. You’re not one of them. You are a card-carrying member of the Fellowship of Fernet.

And you wouldn’t have it any other way.


Photo courtesy of Fernet Branca.