Four (possibly) surprising factors fueling Denver's fernet fever

Something interesting happened at the delicious end of three recent meals -- at Root Down, Frasca Food and Wine and twelve restaurant -- everyone at our table enjoyed a round of Fernet.

We'll admit it: Denver's seemingly boundless fascination with fernet is kind of blowing our minds. Seems like sometime in the past handful of years, the drink that was once firmly relegated to the realm of post-shift libation for those of us in the food and beverage biz has now become the indie darling of the craft-cocktail crowd. But do these fernet fanatics know they're drinking a wine-based spirit?

We're betting not. But given Fernet Branca's nearly 5,000 Twitter followers -- a San Francisco-based user group, @FernetNation, is close to 1,500 strong, and there are dozens of Facebook pages dedicated to the beverage -- its popularity cannot be denied.

Please don't be a sheep, though: If you're gonna drink it, you should at least be conversant in it. Wondering how you can get hip to the facts about what's being called "Jägermeister for hipsters"? Read on.

It's made from wine, people: Fernet falls into the amaro (Italian for "bitter") category of liqueurs, which are typically made using a combination of exotic herbs, spices, flowers and myriad other ingredients macerated in a base of neutral grape spirits and finished off with a sugar syrup. The key phrase in the preceding sentence is "neutral grape spirits," which are created when a base wine is distilled. The resulting beverage is usually much higher in alcohol content than table wine (in the case of amaro, ranging anywhere between 16 and 45 percent) -- which we're thinking might just have a little somethin' to do with its recent rise in popularity.

It's got a past: Invented in 1845 by Bernardino Branca (after whom the brand Fernet Branca is named), an expert spice trader, fernet been consumed around the world for generations. It's believed to have been extremely trendy in pre-Prohibition-era San Francisco, where it remains unbelievably popular -- some estimates say the City by the Bay is responsible for as much as 60 percent of the country's total fernet consumption. Wow. Just wow.

It has [at least one] purpose: Traditionally, fernet has been consumed -- neat or on the rocks -- at the end of a meal as a digestivo, or digestive aid. There are many exceptions to this: In Argentina, it's regularly mixed into a Coca-Cola based cocktail; it can be stirred into coffee; and some peeps absolutely swear by its hangover-curing properties. Nowadays, though, you're just as likely to see Denverites throwing back fernet shots as tequila at happy hour, and the spirit is routinely showing up on our city's most progressive cocktail lists. Hell, Row 14 Bistro & Wine Bar went so far as to get it on tap, which was no easy feat. "Everyone was looking at me like I had two heads," laughs Travis Plakke, the passionate Fernet Branca fan who spearheaded Row's mission to serve it straight from the spigot.

It's definitely having a moment, even if barmen and amaro aficionados around town are slightly perplexed as to what's behind the Mile High City's white-hot fernet fixation. "It's definitely an insider's handshake," says Colt & Gray cocktail maestro Kevin Burke. "It's been a cult hospitality shot forever, am I right?" muses mixologist Matty Durgin. And non-industry types speak of falling more and more in love with the bitter bevvie as their appreciation and understanding of wine and spirits grew.

Whatever the reason, fernet fever in Denver seems to be burning hotter than ever; local distillery badasses Leopold Bros. rolled out its very own take on the spirit late last year.

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Kendra Anderson