Fernet, an Italian amaro, has long been a favorite spirit in San Francisco. Bartenders and cocktail enthusiasts have always enjoyed a shot of the black, aromatic, herbaceous spirit that is quite potent — so much so that the Bay Area accounts for 25% of all the United States consumption. With the region’s emphasis on craft beverage culture and locally sourced ingredients, it’s surprising that no one in the Bay Area has yet to make an original fernet: until now. Enter good friends and native Northern Californians Max Rudsten and Ben Flajnik. Most people know Flajnik as the Sonoma wine maker looking-for-love on ABC’s 16th season of The Bachelor, but he’s quickly establishing himself as a respected figure in the spirits industry. We recently sat down with Flajnik and Rudsten to learn more about their shockingly smooth Fernet Francisco.
How did Fernet Francisco come to be?
Ben Flajnik: Max and I met at a music festival. We were introduced by a mutual friend and for the first year of our friendship, we drank a lot of fernet and a lot of amaro. It was almost like it was a competition to see who could order more fernet shots whenever we were out. At the time, Max was doing some backyard brews and macerating a bunch of different herbs and I had actually been to a few international distilleries and we just sort of put it all together.
Max Rudsten: I was actually making fernet in small batches and was going to the ends of the world looking for ingredients. I was always on the internet trying to find different kinds of herbs from all over the world. Random places, like Turkey to see what was out there. I was getting shipments from just weird places like the Czech Republic. Naturally, I told Ben about my experiments with all these infusions, macerations, and my own barrelings, and all this stuff I had cataloged and profiled. Then all of a sudden it was like, wait, why don’t we make something using ingredients from here? Why don’t we focus on what Northern California offers? From there, we knew we wanted to concentrate on making a local fernet.
The spirit is distilled with 12 local ingredients. How did you decide on the 12 ingredients?
BF: Max had cataloged a ton of different herbs, about 50-60 herbs. I think when we met our partner Farid Dormishian [a biochemist turned master distiller who recently set up a craft spirits company in Richmond] we realized it was a crucial point to hunker down and pick what we liked. It was really a learning process. I had an understanding of what it took to make an amaro, but it wasn’t until our collaboration with Farid did things really get serious.
MR: We can’t tell you what they are, but all twelve ingredients are native or thriving in the state of California.
Why fernet? Why not call it an amaro?
BF: Basically it is technically a fernet. Also, the populace of SF is educated into the fernet category, but they have had no local fernet. All the sales calls that we have done, everyone says “man, this is delicious.” It’s actually kind of dumbfounding that the market didn’t have its own fernet until now.
Why did you walk away from the wine business?
BF: Um, wine is wonderful. I still own the winery I just don’t have any involvement in the winery. I’m also in tech. I wanted to create something with my friends. I have a little experience in spirits. It’s also easier! It’s a different world than wine. You still have to have a ton of patience, but you don’t have to house tons of inventory. It makes for a much cleaner business and it’s proven so with the right partnership, market, and product.
Do other spirits do you have in mind?
BF: We have a barrel aged spirit that we aged down when the Giants won the World Series the first time. We may try and age some fernet in bourbon barrels to bring in some different flavors. But the core of our business is fernet. We came into the game to make fernet.
MR: We may want to fool around with some sweeter amaros, but yeah, the focus is on the fernet.
What do you say to person who doesn’t like the taste of fernet?
MR: I think we have developed a spirit that is much more approachable than Fernet Branca. Most of the people that have a hard time with it don’t have a hard time with our fernet. Most fernets are super bitter, but we have left parts of sugar in when we distill, so it has macerated bright flavors and is botanical and clean. It’s a really clean spirit. We haven’t had a lot of negative feedback! I was at a tasting recently and the people that said ‘I don’t like fernet,’ 9 times out of 10, the people were like, “Holy sh*t! This is good.” Nobody was making that fernet face.
BF: The beauty about it is that its been working really well as the star of a cocktail as well. It has a lot more versatility than Fernet Branca and bartenders can put 2 ounces in a cocktail and add some different elements, but it’s the star of the show.
How did you decide on the name, Fernet Francisco?
BF: Max and I wanted a tie in and homage to the city of San Francsico. It has really molded us as men. We made it a pact to read the book Barbary Coast, it’s packed with tidbits and interesting characters and it inspired us to name it after San Francisco. As for the guy on the bottle, we named him Frankie, Frankie Francisco. We understand that a lot of goes into the packaging and branding.
Where can people find your fernet?
We just signed a distribution deal with Pacific Wine and Spirits. During the month of April, we were at both Bi-Rite Markets. We’re at Bitters and Bottles in Daily City, the Bottle Barn in Santa Rosa. We are still getting the product out there. We are at 100 different bars in SF. We are really starting to see traction and interest pop up this week and we’re already out in Truckee and Sacramento and working on getting up and down the state.