The story might be apocryphal.
Some say it was 10 years ago, others say, no it was more like 15. The point is, at some point, someone in Boston’s nightlife industry brought a bottle of fernet from the west coast to Boston and proceeded to force friends who also happened to be bartenders to drink it.
Fernet is, as even its most ardent advocates will tell you, an acquired taste. It’s supposed to be a digestif, something to help mellow one’s stomach after a filling meal. It’s used as the bitter belly of many classic cocktails. It has some spice to it. Some would say its taste is medicinal. The unkind have compared it to certain cough-soothing medications.
It would, eventually, became a staple amongst restaurant and bar industry folks in town, becoming an unofficial “liquid handshake” between bartenders or wait staff when they were out and about.
“I’m not sure how it started, but it was definitely a thing in San Francisco years ago, and that’s one of the hubs of mixology in the U.S., so it was just a matter of time before it spread to cities on the east coast,” said Michael Boughton, a 31-year-old who grew up in Connecticut and is now the beverage director for Boston Nightlife Ventures, which includes Wink & Nod and Forum.
Nowadays, it’s not only a greeting between off-duty mixologists or those looking for relief after gorging themselves on rigatoni. Shooting fernet, you could say, is a thing.
“It was embraced and understood by the industry eight to ten years ago,” said Jackson Cannon, a 49-year-old who grew up outside of Washington D.C. and is now an owner of The Hawthorne. “And yeah, it’s definitely broadening out. It was an insiders’ shot and now I’m buying five cases every other week.”
Cannon shrugs when it comes to explaining the industry trend — how does anyone explain drinking preferences?
Dylan Black, a 40-year-old Cambridge native who owns Green Street in Central Square, also grasps for an explanation.
“I don’t know if it started out as a dare or as a backlash to the shots of the time, which were really sweet, like lemon drops or kamikazes,” he said. “It’s definitely opened up people’s palates to amaros and digestifs. That’s a huge craze now.”
While it is a staple in some cocktails — it gives drinks a bitter backbone — most customers nowadays who like fernet order it as a shot, straight, said Jackson.
“It’s not just the hipsters who are drinking it anymore, it’s slowly leaking out into the general populace,” said Cannon. “It’s a strong selling item.”