Joey Weller keeps his coin close.
Photo by Alex Zaragoza

It's an indisputable fact that membership in secret clubs is one of the coolest things in the world. As bloody and unlawful as it is, Fight Club seems like a good time.

San Diego has a secret society of its own, aside from Mayor Bob Filner's underground Precious Moments figurine collectors' guild. This one involves the suspenders-wearing bartenders who make your fancy craft cocktails, and, luckily, the first rule of this secret club isn't "Do not talk about the Fernet coin challenge."

Fernet-Branca is an herb-based, bittersweet spirit invented by Maria Scala in Milan, Italy, in 1845. Its original purpose was medicinal, but now it's mostly used to remedy sobriety.

The company that produces the drink created a secret society and game modeled after the specially made medallions used by a WWII American flying squadron. As the story goes, a lost pilot escaped German imprisonment with his coin as his only personal effect. When he came upon some French soldiers, he narrowly escaped execution by producing the coin, which was emblazoned with the symbol of his battalion, proving he was an ally.

After the soldier's narrow escape, the squadron ensured that members carried their medallions at all times by creating a game: A challenger would ask to see the medallion. If the challenged member couldn't produce his in response, he had to buy the challenger a drink. If the challenged member produced his medallion, then the challenger had to pay.

That tradition continues with the Fernet coin challenge. Same rules apply, only the drink at stake is a shot of Fernet. Worthy bartenders, industry professionals, Fernet lovers and drinkers are awarded a heavy red, black and gold coin inscribed with "Fernet-Branca." The other side is designed with the coin holder's home city. The one I was given by Bryan Dietz, field marketing manager for Infinium Spirits and Fernet coin-challenge commissioner, is decorated with San Diego's Downtown skyline.

I earned my coin through my dedication to getting my drink on. There are only about 150 coin holders in the city, and a photo of each coin holder can be found at facebook.com/bryan.dietz.follow.the.rabbit.

"It is coveted to have one," he says. "I'm not going to give one to anyone that just wants it. They have to be pushing Fernet."

Just like with any secret society, there are many rules. For instance, you must be within four feet of your coin at all times. No running out to your car to fish it out of your cup holder.

Cameron Holloway, a bartender at Downtown's Vin de Syrah and month-long coin holder, found this out the hard way. 

I walked into the Alice in Wonderland-themed bar with a Cheshire Cat grin on my face, ready to play my coin. As soon as I dropped it on the bar, Holloway made a face that read something like, "Damn it! Damn it! Damn it!" This is my kind of gotcha journalism.

"I always have mine on me," she assured. "I never take it out of my wallet. But I went camping and took it with me. It's in my camping bag right now."

Conquered, Holloway poured two shots of Branca Menta, a minty version of Fernet. We clinked glasses and drank. I have to say, victory pairs well with Fernet.

Drunk off my triumph, I walked to The Lion's Share. Holloway insisted that there was no way I'd catch one of the barkeeps there coinless, but I was on a high. I strutted into the dimly lit bar and asked for Joey.

"I'm Joey," said Joey Weller, a coin holder since October 2012.

Bam! I whipped out that coin and put it down on the bar. He immediately laughed and said, "That's awesome." Then he reached into his pocket and laid it down on the bar. It was a blow to my inflated ego.

Weller brought over two glasses, poured us each a shot of classic Fernet and we drank. Then I handed him my debit card to pay for the round. Rules are rules, and I, literally, got served.

Write to alexz@sdcitybeat.com. You can also bug her on Twitter.


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