Walk into any bar, order a shot of Fernet-Branca and your bartender will likely respond with a question: “What bar do you work at?”
Hang around bartenders long enough and you start to realize it’s a clubby profession, filled with secret rituals and drinking customs they share with one another, but not often the general boozing public. The most common of these is the bartenders’ handshake—a signal from a visiting bartender to the one on duty that they’re part of the in crowd. “Bartenders’ handshakes could be something that we bartenders pass across the bar to our industry cohorts, something we toast together after a long night of slinging drinks, or something that if ordered by a guest is a dead giveaway that they’re in the business,” says Brandon Wise, beverage director of Sage Restaurant Group in Denver.
The bartenders’ handshake—the drink that local bartenders order to signify to their cohorts that they work in the industry—is different in every city. The handshake could even vary from bar to bar. We talked to bartenders across the country to find out what the insider, spirit-of-choice is for their town.
The most famous bartenders’ handshake is Fernet-Branca, a bitter Italian amaro. Quirky Fernet gained its notoriety decades ago among the tight-knit San Francisco bartending community. The 39-percent ABV digestivo has been available there since the 1800s; in fact, back then it was so revered for its medicinal purposes (to help with digestion), that importing continued even through Prohibition. Probably because authorities didn’t think anyone would drink the stuff for fun.
“If you strip sugar away from Jägermeister, that’s what Fernet tastes like,” San Francisco bartender Scott Brody says. Fernet is flavored with dozens of herbs, roots and spices such as saffron and myrrh; generous people say it is an acquired taste, or something only a bartender would drink. And that’s exactly who drank it. Because the potent bitter isn’t often used in cocktails, San Francisco bartenders would drink it straight, sometimes out of espresso cups and often chased with ginger ale. If a San Francisco bartender entered another San Francisco bar, his first order would be a shot of Fernet; it signified to the bar staff that he too worked within the industry.
The drinking tradition remained exclusive to San Francisco until about 15 years ago, when bartenders began moving away and spreading the legend of the Fernet bartenders’ handshake across the country. Today you can order the once-scarce Fernet in nearly any bar in America. “We were in New Orleans recently and ordered a round of Fernet,” says Garret Van Vleck, co-owner of Shady Lady Saloon in Sacramento, “and the bartender said, ‘you boys are from California, aren’t you?’” In fact, Fernet now markets itself to the masses as an insider-y thing. “This in turn makes it less insider-y to me,” says Kirk Estopinal, owner of Cure, Cane & Table and Bellocq bars in New Orleans. “People who are newer to the craft can be spotted by their insistence on Fernet shots.”
Passé as Fernet may be to some, bartenders across the country are still drinking it by the gallon. “Perhaps indicative of the craft cocktail movement having transcended beyond just bartenders and cocktail geeks, Fernet has graduated to a level where everyday guests are ordering the bracing amaro regularly as well,” Wise says. So bartenders are getting more creative and coming up with their own non-Fernet, city-specific handshakes.
Sometimes local bartenders’ handshakes are just the most inexpensive spirit options, like in Denver, where bartenders love straight shots of Mellow Corn whiskey. “It pairs well with a can of cheap lager, and there is no better medicine after a long night behind the stick,” Wise says. “It’s rather obvious when a ticket comes in to the service bar with eight Mellow Corn shots that you’ve got a group of unruly bartenders in the house. Things might get wild in the bar pretty quick.”
In other cities, bartenders have more of a love/hate relationship with their handshakes. Take Chicago for instance. In Chicago bartenders share shots of the vile hometown spirit Jeppson’s Malört. “Malört is a wormwood liqueur that is like drinking tire fire,” says Toby Maloney, partner and head mixologist of The Violet Hour in Chicago. “It is just madness. It’s like Fernet in that you’ve had to have truly beat your taste buds into submission to be able to down this stuff with any regularity.” Malört is so intrinsically Chicago that Maloney says if he sees someone order it in another city, he knows that person is definitely from Chicago.
Bartender Sean Frederick of Boston, a city that rivals only San Francisco in Fernet consumption, says industry folk there are now turning into bitter thrill seekers, trying to outdo each other with just how bitter they’ll go. He ordered a bottle of Varnelli’s Amaro Dell’erborista for his bar and his staff went crazy for it. “It’s this cloudy, foreboding bitter that smells like danger,” Frederick says. “The moment someone who we don’t know puts in an order for it, it raises a giant red flag. We’re immediately trying to figure out who the hell they are.”
Bartenders in other cities are more practical with their handshake choices. Ryan Wainright, bar director at Terrine in Los Angeles, says the artichoke-based bitter Cynar is “so appropriate” for L.A. “It’s a driving city and Cynar is low in alcohol,” Wainright says. “If someone orders it, I definitely notice. Mostly because it’s so hard to pronounce.” Cynar is also popular in New Orleans. “Cynar is smart because it’s only 13 to 14 percent alcohol, so you can do a few without roughing yourself up,” Estopinal, of New Orleans, says.
And in some cities, bartenders reach for bottles they actually enjoy drinking. Flinn Pomeroy, a bartender at Sweetwater Social in New York City, says bartenders there often take shots of mezcal out of traditional clay copitas first thing when they come in for a shift. “We drink a lot of mezcal here,” she says. “We know what it is going to taste like. We know what it is going to result in. It kind of just feels like home.” The same is true for Las Vegas. “Mezcal seems to be what we have all been sipping on together as of late,” says Dan Marohnic, head mixologist for The Laundry Room lounge inside Las Vegas’ Commonwealth bar. “So much so that we have expanded our mezcal program here and commissioned a potter to make copitas for imbibing with our friends and guests.”
While still other cities use mixed drinks as bartenders’ handshakes. In Honolulu bartenders ask for Fernet-Branca mixed with Campari (also known as a “Ferrari”) and a splash of Coca-Cola. In Nashville and Austin they order “Snaiquiris” or mini Daiquiris. “The Snaiquiri is frequently ordered in a goodie-sized round with the instructions ‘I guess we’ll just have some Snaiquiris while we figure out what the fuck we’re doing,’” says Justin Elliott, beverage director at The Townsend in Austin. “We use Ferraris, too, as an intra-staff salutation for every time a bartender or barback either clocks in, clocks out, goes on smoke break, comes back from smoke break, or thinks about going on a smoke break.”
Bryan Canales, bar manager of Bodega Taqueria Y Tequila in Miami, says industry people in general can go through handshake phases, favoring different spirits and spirit combos. “I, for one, have seen and partaken in the ordering of Negroni shots, Green Chartreuse shots and Angostura shots,” he says. “And while we are constantly looking for something new to try, we still tend to order our favorite: mezcal and Jameson. When someone orders those shots, then you know they are in the biz.” Another telltale drink? “If a bearded guy orders a glass of rosé, that guy is definitely in the industry,” Elliott, of Austin, says. “That’s one I know for sure.”
As for San Francisco bartenders, over the years their handshake evolved from Fernet to mezcal (one explanation for why mezcal has risen in popularity as a handshake across the country) to sherry, their current spirit of choice. “There is a certain conviviality, a sense of community, derived from raising a glass with peers,” Wise, of Denver, says. “And so as the cocktail movement continues to permeate polite society we should expect communities of bartenders to continue to get stronger, and bartenders to continue sharing a toast to their craft. Consider yourself warned.”
Want to feel like a part of the community? Order these spirits (above) the next time you walk into a bar in one of these 13 cities.
Alyson Sheppard is the resident hangover specialist at Playboy.com. Her first drink is always a Fernet and Coke. Find her on Twitter: @amshep