On June 23, 2014, Louis Salgar was shot to death in his Miami home during a home invasion. He was a musician, photographer, and an up-and-coming bartender in the trendy Wynwood district of Miami. After his death, friends described him as a major influence in the cocktail community, and as the type of person who draws in regulars with his personality alone.
But he’s remembered and honored by a secret talisman, too: a Fernet-Branca challenge coin.
A challenge coin is a small medallion that signifies belonging to an organization. When shown to another bartender, Fernet-Branca challenge coins operate like a secret handshake. They were started in 2010 by brothers Bret and Tore’ Kragerud (Bret is the owner of US Medallions, and Tore’ now works with Remy Cointreau). “When you have a coin or you go into a bar and you order Fernet-Branca, you are part of a family,” Scott Mayer, the director of brand advocacy and education for Fratelli Branca, tells me over the phone. “You are part of an industry and part of a community. The coin just emphasizes you’re part of that.”
The coin in honor of Louis Salgar holds special importance to Mayer because Salgar was one of Mayer’s employees. The Salgar Fernet-Branca challenge coin features a stylized drawing of Salgar holding one of his own challenge coins in front of his eye (when I ask Mayer to describe the coin to me, I hear the distinctive clink of metal as he sorts through what he estimates is some 50 coins in the drawer).
Fernet-Branca is not in the business of making specific challenge coins, Mayer tells me. Rather, it’s “a community thing first.” The bartender challenge coins have become a part of Fernet-Branca’s marketing and strategy, though. There are thousands of coins out there now for bartenders that are styled after events, specific bartender guilds, and influential figures like Salgar.
“You’re part of this exclusive club or family,” Mayer tells me. “The coin is your membership token, it’s proof of you being part of that community.”
But challenge coins aren’t unique to the bartending community. There’s not a single story of how challenge coins came about, but according to the website Carry The Challenge, challenge coins most likely started during World War I with a wealthy lieutenant. The lieutenant ordered bronze medallions and presented them to his entire unit of pilots to keep on their person.
One of the pilots was shot down and taken hostage by the Germans. They stripped him of all identification except a small leather pouch around his neck where his bronze medallion was. Over time, he escaped into French territory. The French didn’t trust him, though, because he didn’t have identification. The pilot took out his medallion that had his squadron insignia embossed on it. It was just enough identification to keep the French from labeling him a German spy.
After the pilot made it back to his squadron, it became tradition for the other members to always have the medallion. Naturally, the tradition turned into a drinking game. When a member of the squadron asked to see the coin and someone couldn’t produce one, that person had to buy a drink for the person who challenged them. If the person did pull out a coin, then the person who challenged had to buy the drink. People are brought into the fraternity of coin holders when someone else gives them a coin of their own.
“One of the meanings of the coins is made apparent in the act of giving or exchanging them,” Avery Trufelman explains on an episode of the podcast 99 Percent Invisible. “The coins are literal tokens of gratitude, of appreciation, or love, or sympathy.”
Trufelman and the fans of 99 Percent Invisible also use challenge coins, and being a part of the community of listeners and producers is part of the joy.
“It’s exciting when people show me a coin that they’re carrying on them because every one holds such a story,” Trufelman tells me over the phone. “It’s nice to know what challenge coins are so you can cut to the chase, like, what is this symbol? Where did you get it? How long have you been carrying it around?”
In other words, a challenge coin is a shortcut to skip the small talk.