If you can imagine yourself being smacked in the face while sucking on a Ricola cough drop then you have a rough idea of what it’s like to take your first sip of fernet con cola. The first taste of this dubious looking elixir places somewhere between swallowing Jagermeister flavored mouthwash and ingesting a bleached liquorice cocktail. It is, to say the least, an acquired taste, but one we all make peace with sooner rather than later.
As with many things you come across in Argentina, fernet finds its origins in Italy. Created in 1845 by Bernardino Branca, the drink was developed as a treatment for indigestion but has somehow found its way from the pharmacy cabinet to bar shelves across the Atlantic. It has become the hideously bitter national digestif; partner in crime to the asado. And it’s safe to say that alongside yerba mate, everyone here, old and young, including myself (though it took a while), lives by the libation. However, it’s not the beverage you’ll trust at first sight. It looks like petrol, smells like hell and froths like a salivating animal.
Fernet’s exact recipe is kept a secret but we do know that the spirit is made up of 27 different herbs and that Argentines cannot get enough of the stuff. Fernet-Branca, the best brew, has two distilleries in the world. One in Milan and one in Buenos Aires, which sells 25 million bottles of the aromatic spirit a year, running at full capacity. No wonder we’re all hooked.
For some obscure reason, it is the drink equivalent of steak in terms of Argentine gastronomic necessities but, unlike the meat, it takes some getting used to.
This is more or less how the average Fernet-virgin’s story goes…
I’m going to throw a wild guess and say that upon arriving in Buenos Aires it took slightly less than 48h for you to be offered a glass of fernet with coke. Quite unfamiliar with the drink, you eagerly and naively accepted the offer. As were we, you were warned by your porteño and or naturalized pals that it would taste peculiar, borderline toxic the first time you get it down but that your fragile novice palate would soon become accustomed to the bitter flavor and you’d be obsessed in no time.
So you watch them chuck in the ice-cubes and pour the brown liquid into your cup in a heftier amount than you would your rum or vodka for mixers – I hope. In then go the two parts coke. Until now it all seems pretty standard. But then you notice that your sacred beverage is frothing like a cappuccino. Apparently it’s normal so you don’t ask questions. You take a sip.
You know when you remember a really, really awkwardly cringey moment that you wish with all your heart that you could rewind, and you don’t know why but your face physically cringes at the thought, crippling your eyes and nose. Or if you’re anything like me when you take a tequila shot? Well that’s what happens on your first sip of fernet. And it keeps happening for a few sips. Maybe even glasses. You might even gag.
You watch everyone downing the devil’s drink like it’s water as you power through with each swig, trying as hard as you can to keep a straight face but the flavors are so invasive that the challenge is real and the pain is obvious. All you want is a beer – even a Quilmes, anything – but your desire to get some porteño street cred prevails and you keep chugging.
Unlike marmite, it seems you can’t either love fernet or hate it. There is no option. You have to end up loving it. Thankfully, you soon realize that your friends were right. By some miracle you grow to love the Argie favorite and thank goodness for that because your bevvie choices would have been divided by about half at any future previa if your body had chosen to reject it. You are now hooked on the 45 proof hootch. Green bottles will soon be decorating your bedroom shelves and kitchen window sills and liter coke bottles will be as much of a staple food in your fridge as are your milk and butter. Welcome to the family.
After helping wash down each asado that you too ambitiously dig into, you soon realize that fernet really is your knight in shining armor. It is the magical secret to Argentine endurance, food-wise and generally just life-wise. If you’re going to keep up with Argentine meat consumption and avoid any kind of digestive issues, you have to get used to fernet.
It isn’t when you realize that it doesn’t give you hangovers that you become eternally thankful for the bitter liquor, it’s when you realize it also has the power to cure the hangover you foolishly ended up with because you opted for whisky instead the night before.
Whatever you do, never drink it neat. Unless you want your teeth to fall out.
On a final short but sweet note, word on the street is that one of fernet’s secret ingredients is opium. Bull shit, I hear you say. There needs to be some sort of explanation for the miraculous selling point of the drink, because it certainly isn’t the taste. Supposedly in 1978, a Drug Regulation Reform Act was passed forcing the BATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives) to demand some recipe changes, notably, lowering opiate levels, albeit not eliminating the substance completely from the drink. In other words, there are some alleged traces of the opium that continue to linger inside the drink today.
My limited access to those highly ranked in the fernet industry means that I can’t actually find out if this is true or not. (Then again, only Niccolo Branca, the owner of Fernet Branco and 5th general descendent of Bernardino Branca, knows the full recipe.) But if we’re going to get all-Sherlock-Holmes about the miracle drink then I do know saffron is one of the main ingredients (in fact, Fernet Branco are the biggest consumers of the planet’s yearly crop of saffron, causing a monopoly due to the huge influence they have on the price) of the recipe and is also a key ingredient in Ecstasy/Molly/Mandy/MDMA – call it what you will. Coincidence?
You’re not all taking copious amounts of drugs disguised as fernet every other day of the week. Chill. Since we can’t know the full recipe we may as well have some fun with guessing what’s inside the libation.
Regardless of what’s in the concoction we religiously consume from Thursday through to Sunday, the vast mix of plants and spices from all four corners of the globe isn’t too dissimilar to the nation it has been adopted by. I guess we could say that it parallels the various nationalities and backgrounds that make up Argentina, on an alcoholic level.
As with our adopted patria, the first impressions can be a slap in the face but our growing devotion for it soon presides. Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder but fernet sure has the power to have us all come crawling back for more.