We went to a rocking Victorian party at the Westerfeld House in San Francisco paying homage to the Italian aperitifs Carpano Antica and Punt e Mes and the Italian digestive Fernet Branca. Unfortunately, we didn’t get the memo to dress in Victorian clothes and so showed up in 21st century garb and lost out on the opportunity to win a really cool Fernet Branca bike!
Besides hanging out with people dressed in really cool but uncomfortable-looking vintage garb and sporting some unique facial hair, we also got to go on a tour of the Westerfeld House and drink some amazing cocktails! The Westerfeld House has a history to rival San Francisco. Built by a successful German baker, it survived the 1906 earthquake and was used to house refugees after the tragedy. Its ballroom then morphed into a speakeasy in the 1920’s with the higher floors becoming an alleged house of ill repute. This was followed by a stint as a boarding house for African-American jazz musicians, then a hippy commune in the 1960’s and home to the acid rock movement and a famous underground filmmaker.
One of the highlights of the house tour was the Fernet Branca tasting in the sunroom at the very top of the house (which had amazing views of San Francisco). Fernet Branca is an amaro, which is a bitter aromatic spirit (loved by Italians and the descendents of Italian immigrants around the world, especially in Argentina and San Francisco). The recipe for Fernet is proprietary and only known by one man in the world (a descendant of the inventor). But, we do know that Fernet is a blend of herbs and spices with one of the main ingredients being saffron (and leading Fernet to corner over 75% of the world’s saffron market). I personally tasted quite a bit of menthol.
While the highest floor was dedicated to Fernet, the ground floor that evening was dedicated to aperitifs, and in this case, more specifically Vermouth. We went to an engaging tasting with one of the bartenders from 15 Romolo where we learned all about Carpano Antica, rumored to be the first Vermouth, and Punt e Mes, which is Carpano Antica infused with bitters (and invented in the late 1800’s). Carpano Antica was invented in 1786 by Antonio Carpano (a distiller in Turin), consists of infusing white wine with herbs and spices (quinine being the most famous) and became an instant hit. The drink became so popular that Carpano kept his shop open 24 hours a day to fulfill demand. We know what you are thinking, how could Vermouth be so popular? The answer is that Vermouth is delicious. The problem is that most people drink Vermouth that is old and rancid (more on this later in an article to be brought to you by DOTW on Vermouth).
After providing the history of both Carpano Antica and Punt e Mes, we engaged in an almost side-by-side tasting. Carpano Antica was smooth and sweet. The Punt e Mes was also very smooth but the bitters definitely curbed the sweetness (but to it’s credit, the underlying sweetness of the Carpano Antica was intact if you dug for it). Both Carpano Antica and Punt e Mes can be used in recipes that call for Sweet Vermouth. The Punt e Mes is particularly good in Manhattans and Negronis.
Upon finishing the Vermouth tasting, we headed to the bars (expert mixologists serving libations on the first floor and a do it yourself bitter bar on the second floor). Being spoiled, I ordered a number of drinks handcrafted by expert mixologists (but my husband did hit up the bitter bar and had a great time). There were two drinks that stood out that evening. The first was called the Eva Peron (paying homage to the Fernet loving Argentines (the largest consumers of Fernet in the world)), which played into my current love affair with ginger. A close second was the punch that greeted us upon our arrival, called the Dixon City Cider. See the recipes for these two libations below. All in all, a great evening!