San Francisco Invents Its Very Own Local Fernet

Capitalizing on San Francisco's obsession with Fernet Branca, an unlikely team from the Bay Area has released its homage to the classic Italian bitter using native ingredients. Lauren Sloss on Fernet Francisco and the boom of locally sourced American amari.

san francisco fernet amaro

Fernet Branca’s presence, and near-legendary popularity, has become an almost eye-roll-worthy given in San Francisco—right up there with small-batch, artisan, locally sourced goods.

So, it was only a matter of time before someone took it upon themselves to create a small-batch, artisan, locally sourced version of the Italian amaro. Meet Fernet Francisco, San Francisco’s own craft amaro, joining the slow-and-steady growth of U.S.-based amari.

Many of these follow the Italian tradition of crafting the bitter spirit using locally available herbs and botanicals. BroVo, a collaborative, Seattle-based distillery, led the charge on the Amaro Project, a series of 17 amari created by bartenders in Seattle, Chicago and San Francisco, the first of which was released in early 2013. Breckenridge Distillery in Colorado, riffs on Italian Alpine-style amaro, using roots and plants grown in the Rocky Mountains for its Breckenridge Bitters, first released in the summer of 2012, while Greenbar Distillery in Los Angeles took a similar tact with Grand Poppy, an amaro made using California’s state flower, the golden poppy, which it launched in July 2013.

There are exceptions to this local-first rule, too. Calisaya, which has been distilled in Eugene, Oregon, since 2010, is firmly based on an ancient Italian recipe, and features Seville oranges , agave nectar and its namesake chinchona calisaya, bark from trees that originated in Peru and were imported to Italy in the 17th Century. Saint Agrestis Amaro launched in Brooklyn this winter, staking their claim as New York’s first small-batch producer.

The three finally settled on a blend of 12 herbs and botanicals that, similar to most all amari recipes, they plan to keep a closely guarded secret. They will share that all 12 are local to the Bay Area, and include rhubarb, chamomile, orange peel, bay leaves and mint. The core distillate is vapor infused and blended with an organic natural grain spirit and local grape-based brandy; it’s then aged for one month.

Fernet Francisco sticks to more traditional lines in its desire to showcase the Bay Area’s local bounty, while seizing on the popularity of Fernet Branca—a divisively bitter amaro that has been produced in Milan since the mid-19th century—in San Francisco. Co-founders Max Rudsten and Ben Flajnik (yes, that Ben Flajnik), both live in San Francisco and are decided amaro enthusiasts.

Their recipe was pulled from years of experimenting with herbs and flavors and methodically researching amari from around the world. Rudsten, who has a background in finance, spent years macerating and barrel-aging plants and herbs in his backyard, tasting the resulting flavor extractions and documenting all of his efforts.

“I dove into the deep caverns of the internet, studying everything from Middle Eastern tree barks to ancient Czechoslovakian spices. I would spend more money on shipping than the actual herbs themselves,” Rudsten says of his borderline obsessive research. “I catalogued over 50 herbs and botanicals in an effort to hone in on the perfect flavor profile. I think my backyard brew represented something like 15 different countries. Even the oak barrels were sourced from some random town in Mexico.”

When he and Flajnik teamed up, they switched their focus to a blend that would, per Flajinik, “highlight local ingredients.”

“Max and I started this over a love for [amari] and bitters from all over the world,” he explains. “Ultimately, though, we wanted to give the people of the San Francisco Bay Area a fernet that is all their own.”

The two teamed up with Master Distiller Farid Dormishian, a biochemist, winemaker, bartender and distiller with two decades of experience, most recently under his label Falcon Spirits. But Dormishian started distilling even earlier, experimenting with spirits in his basement using fruits from his family’s orchard in Iran.

The three finally settled on a blend of 12 herbs and botanicals that, similar to most all amari recipes, they plan to keep a closely guarded secret. They will share that all 12 are local to the Bay Area, and include rhubarb, chamomile, orange peel, bay leaves and mint. The core distillate is vapor infused and blended with an organic natural grain spirit and local grape-based brandy; it’s then aged for one month.

Say what you will about Fernet Francisco’s gimmick-potential, the resulting amaro is extremely drinkable—more so than its more assertive inspiration. Herbaceous and floral, with a subtle hint of heady bay leaf, it has a vegetal quality that’s reminiscent of Cynar, without its sticky-sweetness.

They’re also not alone in drawing inspiration from Branca, an industry favorite all over the U.S. Colorado’s Leopold Brothers released Fernet Leopold in late 2011, using cocoa nibs, spearmint and blackstrap molasses in their brew, and Letherbee Distillers released Letherbee Fernet in the summer of 2014. Similar to Francisco, Letherbee’s fernet makes use of rhubarb root, but rounds things out with spearmint, eucalyptus, myrrh gum and saffron.

Fernet Francisco is far from alone in the U.S. bitter scene, but they may well be harkening a diversification of the San Francisco market where Branca has dominated for years (as evidenced by decidedly non-industry bars offering the black stuff on tap). Master Distiller Lance Winters of St. George Spirits confirms that his lauded Alameda distillery is working on an amaro of its own, not to mention the three Project Amaro blends from San Francisco bartenders. What’s more, many of these blends are meant to be mixed into cocktails or sipped on the rocks, rather than slammed as shots. While San Francisco’s got a way to go to catch up with bitters-obsessed Seattle, these first steps towards a local amari Renaissance are promising.

“It’s a really exciting time to be a lover of amaro,” Winters says. “The category itself has so much room for interpretation, as well as for the inclusion of locally foraged ingredients that speak to where the amaro is being made.”

Fernet Francisco is being released this month throughout the Bay Area and Wine Country. It will be available in certain bars and retail locations; keep up with them here to learn more. 

Related Articles

FROM AROUND THE WEB
  • Tim T.

    Local San Francisco oranges. Hysterical.