The Legend and Lore of the Fernet-Branca Challenge Coins
When you lay down a Fernet-Branca coin on the bar, you’re making a statement. It’s like a knock on the door of a members-only establishment. “Somebody who goes into a bar and orders Fernet-Branca is somebody in the know,” says Scott Mayer, Director of Brand Advocacy and Education for Fratelli Branca. “You're part of a small club, and the coin is just an extension of that. Being part of the fraternity of craft cocktail bartenders, we don't wear sweatshirts or have a uniform, we have things like a Fernet coin.”
A shot of Fernet has long been one version of a bartender’s handshake, but the coin takes the concept one step further, riffing on the concept of the American military challenge coin. During World War I, a particularly wealthy lieutenant ordered bronze medallions for his squadron. One pilot wore his in a pouch around his neck. He was wearing it when he was shot down behind enemy lines. Although he escaped his captors, all of his identification had been taken from him, except for his squadron coin. As the story goes, the coin convinced the allies of his nationality, saving his life. After that, the squadron decided that each member should have their coin on them at all times. To ensure that this rule was followed, they invented a drinking game: a challenger would ask to see the medallion of another squadron member. If that member couldn’t produce a coin, they were on the hook for a drink for the challenger. If they produced their medallion, the challenger had to buy them a drink. The practice continued long after the original squadron was gone.
Brothers Tore and Bret Kragerud connected the dots from the military drinking game to the craft bartending community. Tore was a sales rep for Fernet-Branca and Bret owned a souvenir coin business called US Medallions. As an experiment, they created a Las Vegas themed coin in 2012. “We had the Fernet logo on one side and the state of Nevada on the other,” says Bret Kragerud. “We put ‘drinking capital of the world’ on it. My brother would give these out to all the bartenders and tell them ‘Hey, this is the game. Make sure you have your coin on you because if you're going to get out partying and another guy has his coin, if he puts his down and you don't have it, you're going to owe him a drink.” The response was immediate. “It just kind of went viral,” says Kragerud. “Everybody was trying to get their own coin. We were getting emails ‘Hey, I need a coin. I'm getting challenged. I can't keep buying all these drinks.’” It had been two weeks.
When it became clear that the bartending community was embracing the idea, Tore Kragerud took the idea to the powers that be at Fernet-Branca. They liked the concept, but were also a little skeptical. They did it anyway. Bartenders took the idea and ran with it. “The bar community has done this themselves, we’ve just supported,” says Mayer.
One such involved community member is Anthony Morel, owner of Shakertins just outside Dallas. “An ambassador from Fernet came into my bar and we talked a little bit about Fernet,” he says. “She just mentioned, out of nowhere, ‘We're looking at doing the Dallas coin.’” Morel mentioned that he did graphic design on the side, then designed his vision of the coin and sent it to the rep. Within a few months, he received word that they were planning to use his design. “Being able to design something that represents the Dallas service industry was a huge deal for me, it's going to be really cool to see it get passed around,” he says. He has a framed copy of the coin he designed, but he handed the other off to his top bartender. “That was me going ‘Hey, you're an elite. I appreciate you. Here's a coin.’ Then we both took a shot of Fernet,” he says. “And she hates Fernet.”
For Morel, Fernet-Branca reminded him of travels with his Italian father. When they would visit Italy, they would always drink it with dessert. When he began to explore craft bartending, he recognized an old friend in Fernet-Branca. Soon enough, he heard about the coin. “It really starts out as a myth,” he says. “It's like ‘Oh there's a coin?’ ‘How do I get a coin?’ ‘Well it takes a lot to get a coin, you've got to either be somebody or know somebody, or come in contact with a coin.’”
Now there are coins for many chapters of the USBG, as well as for states, countries and events. Kragerud is currently working on a design for Tales on Tour in Edinburgh. Being a member of a USBG chapter is one way to get a coin, or you might pick one up at Speedrack or Tales of the Cocktail, but you might also just need to be in the right place at the right time when a Fernet rep walks into your bar, which is how Morel got his. Once you have a coin, the idea is to trade with bartenders in other places, to keep things circulating. But there are a few lucky ones who begin a collection, acquiring more as they go. While many wear the coin on a necklace, some bartenders have found that a sure way to always have a coin with them is to tattoo it on their body. Another asked Kragerud if he could design smaller versions to fit in his ear gauges.
No matter how you play the game, the coin opens doors and new avenues for conversation. On a recent trip to New York City, Morel set his coin on the Employees Only bar. They did shots of Fernet, suddenly aware that they were peers. “Right off the bat, it was an icebreaker between me and the bartender,” he says. “It made for a very great experience throughout the night.”
“This is a very strong family company,” says Mayer. “You’re a fan of Fernet-Branca, you are now part of their family.” Your Fernet coin connects you to the brand, certainly, but also to a company of people who will vouch for you, just in case you happen to get caught behind enemy lines.