Making friends with Fernet, one shot at a time

by Lindsay Mattison

I’m not really one of those people who goes out to the bar and walks away with a handful of new best friends. Although I’d consider myself outgoing, I just don’t like to bother people. I figure bartenders are usually too busy to stand there and chat with me, and I never like to assume the stranger sitting next to me wants companionship. So, what happened while I was in Charleston, South Carolina, last week was completely out of the norm.

After chasing a few flight delays and bad weather around the country, my regularly scheduled 2 p.m. arrival turned into a touch down at midnight. Instead of eating at one of Charleston’s finest restaurants (the whole purpose of the trip), I grabbed a pre-made sandwich from a kiosk as I ran frantically from one end of the airport to the other to make a tight connection. Sitting on the plane, picking the sad lettuce and soggy tomato slices off of the sandwich, my husband and I lamented about the pathetic meat-cheese-and-bread combo we were greedily shoveling into our mouths. If only it hadn’t been storming in Dallas, we would be dining in style by now!

Some people would just go to sleep after a day like that, but not us. We needed at least one beer (and probably some late-night pizza) to feel like we had arrived on vacation. After dropping off our bags at the rental house, we made our way downtown, passing more than a few drunk college students on our way.

The best thing about college towns? Despite the late hour, the bars on King Street were still hopping. In fact, we had over two hours until most of the bars closed. We wound our way to a spot that we thought had late-night barbecue (spoiler alert, it did not) and bellied up to the bar. That’s when the magic happened: we asked for our standard order – a beer and a shot of Fernet.

We heard someone shout, “Hell, yeah!” from the other end of the restaurant. As we looked over the dimly-lit bar, we saw an exuberant-looking tattooed man walking toward us. “You just ordered our bartender’s handshake. Check it out, I even have a tattoo of that shit!” As he poured three shots (clearly, he was taking one with us), he rolled up his sleeve to reveal that he did indeed have a tattoo of a bottle hovering over two hands shaking, captioned with the words “Fernie, The Bartender’s Handshake.”

What’s the bartender’s handshake? I first learned of it from Lucas Hess and Dave Woodruff at El Moro, who explained this tradition stems from bartenders greeting their friends with a drink on the house. This drink became the “handshake” – a way to say hello. Fernet happens to be the handshake of choice for many bartenders, but it could be anything, from a swig of whiskey to a mini cocktail. If you’re not friends with the bartender, ordering the handshake is a bit like having the secret password to an exclusive event. Especially if the drink is as complex and strange-tasting as Fernet; ordering one up indicates you can handle it – you’re pretty cool, after all – and it can open up some great conversations, whether it’s with the bartender or the stranger sitting next to you.

And it did just that. The bartender – Shepherd, but everyone calls him Shep – not only spilled the beans about all the best bars and restaurants in town, but he also told us who to ask for. See Jimmy at Proof, Angela at Prohibition, and John at the Rarebit; make sure to ask them for a taste of the ginger beer, they make it from scratch, and it’s the best thing in the world. And if you’re going to check out High Wire Distilling, make sure to try the Jimmy Red bourbon (it’s expensive, but so worth it) and there’s a cool 4-lane bowling alley around the corner that’s a local favorite.

(Side note: Can someone please open a bowling alley in Durango? Please? Even if it only has a few lanes. You would be the honorable recipient of my undying love forever, know this.)

We thought it was a fluke, but sure enough, night after night, we saddled up to a new bar and ordered a shot of Fernet. “Hey, hey, hey, I’ll take one with ya; we love Fernet at this bar!” Everywhere we went, ordering the bartender’s handshake created an insider’s guide to exploring the city. Looking back on it, it’s possible – very possible – this was all nothing more than fantastic Southern hospitality. After all, this has never happened to us in San Francisco, Denver, Seattle, or Portland. But, I’d rather believe it’s the power of Fernet.

Lindsay Mattison


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