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The Count of San Francisco

Silly me, I didn't even notice that my story on Count Niccolo Branca of Fernet-Branca was in this month's San Francisco Magazine. Here it is.

The count comes a-courting

Bottle talk with the CEO behind San Francisco's favorite shot, Fernet-Branca.

By Camper English, Photograph by Cody Pickens


San Franciscans consume around 35 percent of all the Fernet-Branca sold in the United States, thanks mostly to the local palate, which tends to skew toward bitter. Recently, the chairman and CEO of Branca International (and the great-great-grandson of Fernet’s creator), Count Niccolò Branca, paid a visit to San Francisco to meet with bartenders and visit high-selling accounts. We met him at Foreign Cinema, where he shared some company lore and addressed a few persistent rumors about the brand.

Branca says he hasn’t been to town for about 25 years, though San Franciscans have repeatedly tried to visit his distillery in Milan, where all the Fernet-Branca imbibed in the States is made. “Sometimes they come on Saturday or Sunday, when the company is closed. Monday morning, we find on the door a paper—they write, ‘I want to visit. I see where is born the Fernet-Branca,’” the count reports. And now they can, since the distillery and its museum have finally opened for tours (by appointment).

Branca insists that his bitter liqueur has never contained opiates, as some have alleged over the years. His evidence is circumstantial but still convincing: Opiate possession is currently prohibited in Italy, and he says the recipe for Fernet-Branca hasn’t changed in the 164 years it’s been produced. But he assured us that a couple of perceptions are true: one, that drinkers across the world ask for Fernet-Branca served “San Francisco–style,” meaning a shot accompanied by a ginger ale chaser; two, that Fernet-Branca remained legal during Prohibition because of its medicinal qualities.

The count complimented San Franciscans on our pronunciation of his product’s name (fur-net), which he hears incorrectly all over the world. “Even in Italy, some people say fur-nay,” he explains. “But the important word is Branca!
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