I think my first shot of fernet was in Boston, out of a boot-shaped shot glass. I didn’t order it, but received it by way of the famous industry nod we all know so well by now. I probably played it cool, ever the green youngling on most staffs I’ve been a part of, but I do remember a little trill zipping through my body as I watched everyone get ready to do this thing. It was a big deal, and it felt like some hardcore blood brothers ritual. There was also some not-Branca stuff I discovered in a tiny, nondescript restaurant many years later than knocked my socks off, but I never wrote it down.
When I moved back to San Francisco, land of sexy alligators plastered on Branca billboards, I saw less of it, oddly. It’s a given, here, and it’s what everyone drinks, not just industry folks. What’s crazy is that it took this long for high-spirited, fernet-chugging San Francisco to kick one of its mighty citizens into gear and construct its own incarnation. Max Rudsten is that citizen.
My first experience with amaro was a shot of Fernet Branca, of course. You always remember your first Fernet Branca shot. Already, there’s emotion attached to it, that nostalgia. I think I was 19 or 20 years old, and I was visiting a buddy of mine who was going to USF. I had no idea what it was, but you know, when in Rome. And I remember leaving that night thinking, what the hell was that? I wanted to learn more about it, right then. I was going to school in New Orleans at the time, and I don’t think it was around there yet...every time I’d come back to San Francisco, or people would come into town, that would be the drink of choice. I tried to spread it around to friends and anyone who visited. It just became what I would drink. When I was in my 20s, it was just a rite of passage, but the older I got, the more I grew to love the complexities of it. I started thinking about other options in terms of amaro and investigating, but it was never a full-on obsession until two to three years ago.
I was in a career that I absolutely hated. I’ve always been a creative person, and I was in a job—investment banking—that suffocated that muscle in a lot of ways. I was always overworked and tired, and I didn’t feel like I was contributing much to society. It was soul-sucking. I finally reached my breaking point, and decided to pull the ripcord. I wanted to focus on creating, and how I could get back to San Francisco and its culture. I was on a beach in Mexico, I remember, in Tulum, pondering my life, and that’s when I thought of that first shot of Branca. I thought, what if we could create a fernet that San Francisco could call its own? That’s when the obsession started. I wanted to give back to the culture of San Francisco, and that's what sent me diving in.
He walked off that beach intent on making the town's first local fernet. What a marvelous dream: a fernet for the people!
I quit my job the next week. It didn’t manifest itself right away, because it was just me. It only started to snowball once I started to talk about it. There were skeptics, people who wondered what the hell are you doing trying to make a fernet, wondering why I was trying to make a living off of such a niche thing, but at that point, I didn’t really care. I just wanted to get a bottle of it in my hands. I don’t think people really got it until two or three weeks ago, when we bottled our first round.
I searched everywhere. Fernet is this notoriously mysterious thing, and on the Internet, there isn’t really much on it. I was getting into all these threads on European pages, and translating them, trying to pick out herbs and botanicals that people would mention from different posts. There was nothing specific that I found to be helpful, to be honest. It became about opening Pandora’s Box and going to the ends of the Internet, just cataloguing rabbit holes. When you’re sitting there for hours looking for remnants of certain herbs, you start to think you’re a little bit crazy, no question. But at the end of the day, it was a treasure hunt. It was fun. It was even more fun when the herbs would show up and I’d get to fuck around with them and see what they’d do.
Also, Rudsten has approximately zero culinary experience beyond being a person who eats and drinks things. It’s the kind of moxie—brought forth by blind faith and industrious spirit—that cannot be replicated. By this point, he is following his nose and his stomach and expanding the apothecary of his mind beyond where it’s ever gone, all with the earnest urgency of a rookie beat cop.
I had no idea how to approach it. No idea, which was especially daunting when the shipments would come in. But that was a part of the process, figuring it all out. I’ve always been a very adventurous eater, and I love pushing the boundaries a bit. In Thailand, I'd be the one eating cockroaches from street stands, that kind of thing. I always had a passion for intricacies of different flavors, but I never really thought I would wind up in it like this. When I started researching? I knew I was after fernet. But before that? I had no idea.
Initially, it was just to find every herb and botanical that could have gone into it. I think I wound up cataloguing 50 to 60 different one from all over the world. My first go at it was just to take all the herbs and stick em in 190-proof alcohol, and let it steep for three weeks, and then put it in a barrel and see what happens. That didn’t work out too well. It wasn’t so much how it tasted, but how it made you feel. The body was trying to process so many herbs from so many different countries...it was a trip. We barreled six different recipes that I had created. Some of them turned out okay, and some definitely didn’t, but it was more about taking notes.
It was the first time I couldn’t let go. I would always appreciate and love a good dish of food, but I would never go back and obsess over how it was made. This was not only about the fernet itself and the mystery there, but about creating something for a place. San Francisco is such an eclectic, weird city. There’s so many different pockets, and the continuity I noticed across all of them was a shot of this weird, mysterious, dark elixir. It’s a bloodline in a lot of ways.
After years of experimenting on his own, in a lush private world of foreign botanicals and biting first batches, Rudsten formed a friendship with fellow amaro enthusiast Ben Flajnik, a winemaker out of Sonoma. Fernet Francisco was now officially a thing that was really happening, so a biochemist-turned-master distiller was brought on to assist in refining their efforts. Farid Dormishian had learned the art of maceration by watching his grandmother, and began making his own liqueurs and infusions at a young age, using fruit from her orchard. He gets the science, and he gets the soul, of the project.
I think I always wanted to create something that could be commercially enjoyed. I knew it wouldn’t happen from my backyard, but I needed to understand how to approach it. It took all of my headspace, trying to really understand the fernet landscape. There’s quite a few out there. There’s one from the Czech Republic, Mexico, Sweden. It’s hard to get your hands on some of it. There’s some really good ones, and there’s some really bad ones.
Dormishian pulled from his background in gin production and introduced a vapor-infusing technique, creating a more elegant and smooth end-product, to hear Rudsten tell it. It’s lighter, less viscous, and less sugary than anything on the market. An easy-drinking fernet with street cred? Only in San Francisco.
A lot of the fernets you see on shelves are old-school Italian, or old-school Eastern European. I don’t think there’s been anyone, at least domestically, who’s been like, 'hey, we are all in on this.' Not only because we love fernet here, but because San Francisco is so supportive of local products. I’ve been walking into bars for the past week and a half, just hitting the pavement with a bottle of this stuff, and even the most intimidating, tatted-up, bearded bartender who you’d think would say, get the fuck out of here, I already sold my soul to Branca, even they’re like, I’m so proud of you, man! This is amazing! It’s such an amazing city to do this in, and that’s why I couldn’t be happier. What I realized, especially in entrepreneurship, is that a lot of people have ideas they don’t talk about, because they feel like they have to guard it. But people become invested once they hear about it, and it forces you to execute, almost. You have to get people involved, because then it manifests into something bigger. It’s incredible.
As Rudsten wrestled with transitioning Fernet Francisco beyond his backyard, he began reading The Barbary Coast, a catch-all for the debaucherous history of the city. The arresting mascot emblazoned on the bottle was adopted from an 1860s advertisement, for something in San Francisco no one seems to be able to track down. It’s an intentional nod to those early days of imported Fernet Branca first-movers, as is the minty green—reminiscent of the classic fernet finish, is it not?
Now we’ve created something that’s real, and it’s about getting it into the hands of the people it was created for.
Fernet Francisco will be distributed in San Francisco and the surrounding Bay Area in April 2015. For outsiders, best befriend someone who won't mind being used as a bottle mule. For now.