I spent a week in Las Vegas on an assignment recently, working on a story about Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh’s $350 million roll of the dice to reinvent downtown Las Vegas. Slow Cocktails isn't about urban redevelopment, but I’ll link to the story —> here <— when it’s published next year. Fascinating things are happening in Las Vegas — if you’re curious, you should read this recent NYT Magazine piece about Hsieh (pronounced “shay”) and the Downtown Project.
This blog’s jurisdiction is liquor, people who make it, things to do with it, and places to drink it. So it caught my eye when walking through Hsieh’s apartment in a downtown tower just off Fremont St. — actually a warren of three linked units — and I noticed a Fernet Branca dispenser.
You might think that something like this would instantly leap out, but it didn’t. That’s because of the room where it was stationed. It was the jungle room, designed as a place for parties — a dim and grotto-like space, which was filled with plants.
Now when people say “filled with plants” this usually suggests a few potted palms and some hanging ferns. Maybe you thought of Henry Africa’s, San Francisco’s proto-fern bar.
But this room was more like a fern bar after a long regimen of XTC and steroids: basically every square inch of wall and ceiling was smothered with plants. The walls had been covered with permeable fabric covered with marsupial pouches, which were filled with soil and implanted with tropical plants with dense leaves and wispy tendrils. I met two women whose job it was to water the room every day.
What was I talking about? Oh, right, Fernet Branca.
The room had a bar along the far end, and at one end of the bar was the Fernet Branca machine. This was gift to Hsieh from friends and staff — they had acquired a Jägermeister machine, then spray painted and lacquered it with Fernet labels and tweaked the bottle holders to switch from square Jäger bottles to round Fernet.
I positioned a shot glass and pressed a button, and out came a cold refreshing shot of Fernet. Well, refreshing in that freakishly refreshing way of Fernet.
Fernet is apparently more than a one-room novelty at Zappos. It’s part of the corporate culture, especially if it involves Tony. I spent part of an evening at the Downtown Cocktail Room, where Zappos and Downtown Project staffers keep office hours after hours. When my tab came, somehow I had been erroneously billed for eight shots of Fernet. Random!
Later I attended a meeting of the Downtown Project, and during it they celebrated the first-year anniversary of several staffers. They were called up on to stage, whereupon each was handed a shot of Fernet to down. Hsieh joined in. I watched carefully. He drank it all.
When I talked with Hsieh later, I asked about the Zappos/Fernet culture. He smiled, and became far more animated than when he was talking about footwear.
He’d learned of Fernet when Zappos was still in San Francisco about a decade ago. “It was sort of the secret handshake of people who worked in the service industry,” he said. “When I first moved to Vegas it was impossible to find, but it’s been slowly migrating east.”
“We know the Fernet distributor in Vegas,” he went on. “The number one consumer of Fernet here is the Cosmopolitan, and then the number three is the Downtown Cocktail Room. The wholesaler who supplies my house is number four. But if you combine three and four, we’re actually number one.”
He seemed very pleased by this fact. Tony Hsieh is well-known for the epic parties he threw at his San Francisco loft, his early success in building one dot-com fortune, and then another. (He sold Zappos to Amazon for $1.2 billion.) But he may soon also be famous for this: introducing a generation of urban planners and economic development types to Fernet.
If the new downtown Vegas takes off, I’ll wager you’ll be seeing bow-tied urban planners nationwide asking for Fernet at neighborhood bars like bartenders just off a shift. Success breeds imitation, right?