Photo: Aaron Alvarado
Let me weave you a story of mystery, secrets, laughter and family. As many stories do, this one follows adventurers in search of treasure, though this is no tale of the high seas or deep jungles, but of a bar top, and the people on either side of it. You see, there is a bottle hidden among the luminous shelves of glass in that bar, and it is a bottle you have very likely ignored, not knowing the true weight of flavor and history each drop contains. More than just great taste though, this bottle helped spark what is possibly the biggest and most profound game you didn’t know existed; All you have to do is own a coin. But how to land your hands on this coveted currency, and how is the game played? All will be revealed, but first, let’s talk about that bottle and how this all came to be.
Fernet-Branca was created in 1845 in Milan, Italy. An amaro (Italian for “bitter”) by nature, the spirit is generally taken as a digestif, or Apéritif, generally consumed before or after a meal. Made from 27 herbs and 15 roots, with the exact recipe being known only to a very select few worldwide, the combination is then aged for 12 to 15 months in 20,000-liter barrels underneath the distillery in Milan. Argentina is the largest consumer of the product, to the extent that Fernet-Branca has its own distillery in the country, but every other bottle worldwide comes from Milan. The spirit was first brought to America’s shores in the early 1900s, landing in both New York and San Francisco, and due to its complex nature and bitter flavor notes, was sold medicinally, thus avoiding the sightlines of prohibition. This meant American’s could purchase Fernet in 375ml from any drug store, and be able to imbibe upon returning home legally.
The spirit has always had its place in the bar, as bartenders understood its quality, and bringing to their bars post-prohibition as American’s had developed a taste for Fernet-Branca. It’s herbal elements truly do have beneficial results, much the same other bitters and medical products of the age were used to sooth the stomach and body. It is therefore not uncommon to see bartenders take a shot of Fernet-Branca before a shift starts, to calm the nerves before the tickets start skipping from the printer. These physical benefits, paired with the allure of its prohibition history, lead to the product becoming widely adored by those in the know.
As consumer trends changed in the latter half of the ’80s and ’90s, American’s palates shifted away from spirits like Fernet, but now, thankfully, that is changing. Should you go into a bar, and ask for a shot of Fernet, it is almost a guarantee that you will be asked what bar or restaurant you work at, hence why it is known as “the bartender’s handshake.” However, if you see someone go into a bar, order Fernet, then present a large coin to the bartender, that is something else entirely, because that my friends, is the great game, but where did it come from?
In World War I, Americans flocked overseas to fill spots in flying squadrons in Europe. In one such unit, a wealthy commander ordered medallions struck in solid bronze and presented them to his men. One of these pilots was shot down behind enemy lines, though eventually escaped, but without any personal effects as German’s had confiscated it all, save for a small leather pouch around his neck. Eventually falling into a French section of what was known as “No Man’s Land,” the pilot needed to prove he was no saboteur, so presenting the coin, a French officer recognized the insignia of his squadron. From here, the tradition in the squadron became to always carry your coin on your person, which inevitably led to the creation of a challenge. A challenger would ask to see the coin, and, if the challenged individual could not produce a coin, they were required to buy a drink of choice for the challenger. If a coin was produced, then the challenging member was forced to pay for the drink. This tradition has been carried on in many forms since, but several years ago, Fernet-Branca brought this numismatic celebration in-house.
Troy Kragerud was the Vegas marketing manager for Infinium Spirits, and he, with his brother Bret (who still manufactures the Fernet-Branca coins to this day) developed the concept of introducing challenge coins, specifically for Fernet, into the bartending and spirits world. The military hugely influenced both, and so, several years ago, they launched the coins. Each state only gets around 100 to 125 coins a year, with the only other coins coming by way of major events or gatherings — such as Tales of the Cocktail. Coins are presented to those deemed worthy, traded for, and can be won by bartenders at events, or handed down from other industry professionals. Selling a coin is deemed a terrible offense, with punishment being no more coins for the offender. Every set is different in their face designs, making their collectability extremely high and valued. The rules for the challenge game (the official rules list can be found at the bottom of this article) are essentially the same as in WWI; present a coin, and if the person can’t present theirs, you get a free Fernet-Branca.
So what makes the game so special and Fernet so alluring to bar professionals? “There just is never a bad time for Fernet,” emphatically states Holly Tripp, bartender at The Blind Rabbit speakeasy in Anaheim. “I have been lucky to get a few coins, and the game aside, the coins and the whole Fernet brand make you feel like you are a part of this big club. It is this great sorority/fraternity of friends,” she finishes. She isn’t alone in her sentiment, as Fernet-Branca and its coins have their emotional hooks in industry professionals from all over, “They take you back to memories,” says Mariah Tatham, Former manager of 100 North Kitchen + Lounge in Fullerton (which happens to have Fernet on draft) and the staggeringly underrated Tribune, located inside 100 North. “You compare your coins from different events with friends, and even more than having them for the challenge, they just remind you of the amazing people in this industry and the times you’ve had with them.”
- Rules of the coin game must be given or explained to all new coin holders.
- The coin MUST be carried at all times. You can be challenged for it anywhere, at any time. You must produce the coin without taking more than four steps to produce it.
- When challenging, the challenger must state whether it is for a single drink or a round of drinks.
- Failure to produce a coin, for whatever reason, results in a bought round or single drinks (whatever the challenger stated). This type of transaction could be expensive, so hold onto your coin. Once the offender (coinless challengee) has bought the drink or round, they can’t be challenged again.
- If all that are challenged produce their coins, the challenger loses and must buy the drinks for all respondents. This too can be expensive, so challenge wisely.
- Under no circumstances can a coin be handed to another in response to a challenge. If a person gives their coin to another, that person can now keep the coin — it’s theirs! However, if a person places the coin down and another person picks it up to examine it, that is not considered giving and the examiner is honor-bound to place the coin back where they got it. The examiner can’t challenge while they hold another’s coin. After negotiating a “reasonable” ransom,” the examiner must return the member’s coin.
- If a coin is lost, replacement is up to the individual. A new coin should be acquired at the earliest opportunity — losing a coin and not replacing it doesn’t relieve a member of his or her responsibilities. This is especially true if you traditionally carry a coin.
- The coin should be controlled at all times. Giving a coin to just anyone is like opening a fraternity to just anyone. It is an honor to be given a coin, let’s keep it that way. A given or awarded coin is of more personal value than a purchased coin.
- No holes may be drilled in a coin.
- The above rules apply to anyone who is worthy to be given/awarded a coin, or who is known to be a previous coin holder.