Acquiring a taste for the ‘bartenders’ handshake’


I like to continually challenge my palate by eating or drinking things that at first don’t go down well. But upon a second, third or in some cases a ninth taste, I begin to like it. Then, I eventually love it.

Uni, or sea urchin, is one such delicacy that I now adore (although it can’t really be found in Boise). Fernet-Branca is another.

Originally crafted in 1845 in Milan, Fernet-Branca is considered an amaro (Italian for bitter). Upon first taste, you are probably not going to like it, since it has most closely been compared to cough syrup. Bitter to be sure, Fernet exudes flavors of black licorice, tree bark, pine and strong herbs. Many people compare it to a far less sugary Jägermeister.

But don’t let that first taste dissuade you; your shocked palate will, if you give it a chance, warm up to this curious elixir that interestingly was first sold as medicine. In fact, it was still legal to sell Fernet during Prohibition, and it does settle your stomach. Some even say it is a great hangover cure, and I have to agree.

Up until 2000, you would be hard-pressed to find a bottle of Fernet in any American bar outside of San Francisco, where it has been heralded for more than a century. Today, bartenders likely consume the most Fernet — shots of which are called “the bartender’s handshake.”

Globally, Argentinians consume the most Fernet, typically in the form of Fernet con Coca — Fernet and Coca-Cola on ice. Other popular ways to consume Fernet is straight with a ginger ale back or Fernet and soda (or ginger ale) over ice.

As for cocktails, there are very few that use Fernet, though bartenders are dabbling with concoctions as you read this. Likely the most popular Fernet cocktail (and a favorite of mine) is called a Toronto, which first appeared in the 1922 publication “Cocktails How to Mix Them” by Robert Vermeire.

Kevin Hopper is constantly challenging his palate, and the those of his guests at laid-back State Street cocktail house, Capitol Bar (


2 oz. Canadian whiskey, such as Crown Royal

1/4 oz. Fernet-Branca

1/4 oz. simple syrup

2 dashes Angostura bitters

Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass. Fill with ice and stir for 30 seconds. Strain into a cocktail glass and squeeze an orange peel over the drink and use as a garnish.