There was a time when ordering a shot of Fernet Branca was weird, when your friends would screw up their faces (if they actually knew what the stuff is) and waft a glass of Cuervo under your nose: “now this is a shot!”
Oh hold up, that's actually still how it is – but at least now you have a dope song featuring a legit San Francisco soul legend to bawl back at the haters when they're questioning your libation election.
I'm (half) joking – Fernet has long been the officially official “we're in San Francisco!” weirdo drink for weirdos -- who run this town, of course. We've been drinking it since Italian immigrants lugged it through Angel Island in their suitcases – straight on through Prohibition in fact. Branca ducked the judging gaze of teetotalers by being sold in pharmacies as medicinal elixir.
But the modern day craze, well that's something else. I was recently down in Buenos Aires, where they drink even more than we do (mixed with Coca Cola, in their case) – but even the porteños knew that San Francisco drinks hella Fernet Branca – we take down a quarter of the entire country's total consumption, by some counts.
If you're going to point fingers anywhere for the current renaissance, you may as well jab them at DJs Doc Fu and Pause of the Red Wine crew.
Aaron “Pause” Vaughn says he was first introduced to Fernet back in 1995 by Hobson's Choice bartender Chris Dickerson. Back then, it was the after hours drink of choice for the service industry set. Red Wine started drinking it paired with pints of Guinness at all its gigs, and members haven't looked back.
“I know the Red Wine crew and affiliated converts like it because it settles your stomach after a Mission burrito or a harrowing bike ride through the City,” Pause tells me in an interview over the Internets. “The Red Wine DJs have been notorious for drinking and pilfering bottles of the stuff at gigs for years.”
“We've been drinking it since we were kids in the club,” says Bruce O'Leary, who spins hip hop, soul, and eclectic booty-shakers throughout the city under the moniker of Doc Fu. “It wasn't a thing. The bartenders we worked with were like 'we've got this stuff in.' And I was like 'I'll drink it.' It was like a secret handshake.”
But what started as an after hours drink for the cool kids started become the all hours drink for the cool kids – at least for Doc Fu, who started to “go to the bar and be like 'yo, I need a shot of Fernet and Guinness like, right now.'”
And just like that, it wasn't just the industry set anymore. “The other night I saw a guy on a ten speed with a sipper [of Fernet] in his back pocket,” says Doc Fu.
High time the brew (comprised of a million ingredients culled from sources on multiple continents, reputably suitable for defeating hangovers, assuaging menstrual pains, or bonding with your Argentinian buddies) had an anthem.
And one night, gathering together drinking supplies from Safeway for a gig opening for Mistah F.A.B., the Red Wine boys hit upon it: “I Drink Fernet.”
“You know how in Safeway they play random shit?” remembers Doc Fu. A mellow '80s jam came over the tinny loudspeakers as the Red Wine crew was dealing with a store clerk who kept trying to sell them champagne instead of their desired bottle of Italian bitters. They started subbing out the lyrics to ones that were more appropriate for the situation at hand.
The result was too good to leave in the grocery aisle. Pause recorded the song with Equipto a few years ago, and even got Michael Marshall to do the hook. Marshall was part of the '80s Berkeley group Timex Social Club and will forever go down in history for singing the hook for the Luniz' “I Got Five On It.” Recently he's been popping up all over, including in Equipto's must-bump for SF summer 2011. “Pause got Mike Marshall on the phone. I was like, the San Francisco soul legend? Why don't you just call up Deangelo,” Doc Fu remembers.
The crew recently released a video for "I Drink Fernet", which they filmed at Haight Street bar Nickie's with a little help from the amiable publicity reps at Fernet Branca. “Fernet showed up to the video shoot with four or five magnums. They're incredibly nice folks by the way. It was a pretty fun night,” says Doc Fu. Pause phrases the night a little differently: “during the video shoot everyone got sloppy on Fernet.”
The videos making the rounds through SF drinkers now, which has Doc Fu joking about what the next round's gonna be. “We should do a whole EP about liquor song, a song about Jameson, a song about pony kegs. Everyone loves liquor songs. Somebody today is having their first drink.”
And that's what makes this city great. Perfect, now I'm thirsty. Pass that weird shit they only drink in San Francisco, and turn up my song.