Fernet Branca is something that many readers might not have tried before. In fact, I’d bet that if you’re not in the industry or aren’t a fellow booze geek you may have never tried it before. So before I talk about what I mean by the bartender’s handshake, let me give a bit of background.
You’ll sometimes see Fernet Branca referred to as Fernet. It’s more accurate to say that it’s a fernet, but not the fernet (though we could make a case for the second statement based on how pervasive Branca is). So let’s talk first about what a fernet is.
Fernets are a kind of amaro. In case that statement makes things even more opaque for you, the word amaro means bitter in Italian. As you might imagine by the name they’re, well, bitter. Herbs, tree bark, citrus peel, roots, vegetables, mushrooms… all of these can be ingredients. They’re macerated in alcohol for a period of time, the ingredients are then filtered out leaving just the infused alcohol behind. Sugar is then added. It might then be aged, either in casks or glass demijohns or aged in the retail bottles themselves. These can be drank on their own, usually as a digestif after a meal, or used as a cocktail ingredient.
Now that we’ve defined an amaro, let’s get back to fernets. These are a specific type of amaro made in a particular style that’s less sweet (Branca has almost no sugar at all) than other amari and usually contains myrrh and saffron. Branca is absolutely the most common fernet, which is why I said you could argue that it might be the fernet in that sense. Other brands include Martini, Luxardo, and Cinzano.
The Bartender’s Handshake (at least in the US)
Bartenders enjoy drinking, as you might imagine. And when they’re not at work in their own bars, they can often be found at other bars. When a bartender recognizes another bartender in their bar, they may send over a free drink or shot. In the United States, this is often Fernet Branca. The practice started in San Francisco and quickly spread around America from there (and the practice has spread internationally since then). Fernet Branca has embraced their position and encourages the practice (obviously). There are even Fernet Branca challenge coins, pins, and other ephemera distributed to front of house staff to help reinforce Branca’s position. You may also find bartenders with tattoos of the Fernet Branca eagle.
Other Bartender Handshakes
Other than Fernet Branca, I’ve also seen shots of Angostura bitters and daiquiris used. Gray Chapman at Tales of the Cocktail wrote about other handshakes, and you’ll see a common thread among most of them – Malort, Cynar, Campari, Antica, Chartreuse… they’re all bitter. Why is this? Some think it’s because it helps reset and/or develop your palate, others say it’s because being able to drink these straight without a mixer shows how tough bartenders are.
Whatever the reason, the next time you’re at a bar and see someone getting a Fernet Branca shot, now you know that this might be a tip of the hat and sign of mutual respect between two professionals.