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Beyond Fernet Con Coca: Learning To Love Argentina’s Favorite Spirit

By | [email protected] | August 16, 2016 4:09pm

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“It’s an acquired taste” they said to me the first time I tried Fernet-Coca and felt like I was drinking my Listerine, Cuba Libre style.

It will grow on you” they kept saying over the uncountable times I’ve agreed to give it yet another try. But here we are, I’ve been living in Buenos Aires for over two years, and I still haven’t managed to solve my biggest Argentine cross-cultural conundrums: I hate Fernet.

Yes, I know, something’s wrong with me. Every foreigner who has moved to Argentina knows Fernet acceptance is a key step on the tough path to integration. Friendships, and I am sure a fair share of business relationships have been shaped in this country for years around a glass of the beloved Italian bitter and coke.

A few months back I thought it was about time I get over my Fernetaphobia, but instead of going to a therapist – another Argentine custom I haven’t adopted yet – I decided to take my issue up with some of the city’s top bartenders. This is the story of my quest for Fernet tolerance and what I learned along the way. 

Baby steps

Can take a minute and all agree that Fernet’s herbal punch can be intimidating, even to the most adventurous of palates? I thought if I started out gently, hiding Fernet’s intensity under some friendlier flavors I might actually come to appreciate it – or at least I would get progressively used to it. 

Bartenders at Gran Bar Danzon helped me out taking that first step. Hearing about my Fernet issue they suggested I try the Light and Dark. There, the Italian bitter wasn’t the star of the show, as Gin and Vodka had the strong supporting roles in this trago. Some fresh mint and a cardamom syrup gave it the right amount of fresh and exotic, putting the herbal intensity down. I felt proud: this was the first time I had ever finished a whole Fernet drink. Okay, fair enough it wasn’t 100% Fernet, but it was one hell of a start.

Gran Bar Danzón

Gran Bar Danzón

 

Another night, one of those moments I perpetually dread took place: the group of friends I was out with decided to switch from beer for Fernet-Coca. I wasn’t ready. I panicked: I wasn’t going to just have water for the rest of the night, but the thought of that bittersweet flavor in my mouth made me feel like water couldn’t be so bad.

So, someone suggested: why don’t you have a Vermouth? Huh. What exactly is in a Vermouth? Well, to my surprise part of the answer (in this case) was Fernet. Only part of it to my relief though. Cynar was actually the leading ingredient, so I agreed to try it. Partly since I had run out of options, but mostly because it was part of that deal I had made with myself: growing up and giving Fernet a chance.

Two parts of Soda, one of Cynar, a few drops of orange juice and only a subtle splash of Fernet. I had found my drink, until everyone decided to get a Vermouth, we ran out of Cynar and I found myself back at square one, but happy progress had been made. 

Another peak moment in my quest for overcoming my aversion to Fernet was trying what is popularly known as a “Toronto”. A sort of Old Fashioned, where Angostura is replaced by a  splash of Branca. The rye whiskey (which can also be replaced by Bourbon, though I’m not sure what the name of the drink would turn into) has so much flavor and intensity that Fernet has no way to beat it. Plus, you add a few drops of syrup, which makes the whole drink smoother. Read carefully: I said smoother and not smooth. Managing expectations is key to success here. 

Later, I got to try a version of this cocktail in Verne Club, though you can’t find it on the menu, I’m sure they’ll be happy to help you out if you find yourself in a similar Fernet situation.

Vern Club

Vern Club

 

Having heard that the bar Prado y Neptuno was adding new Fernet based cocktails to their menu a couple of months ago I decided to pay them a visit. Looking for something where Fernet only played a secondary – but crucial – role, I found the ‘Cuban Manhattan’ Prado Style.

In this drink, Rum is king, while Punt e Mes and Fernet have a subtle appearance that gives the cocktail the right amount of intensity without turning it into a liquid potpourri of herbal sweetness. The preparation also calls for some orange bitters, which gives the mixture a citrus punch while adding an interesting bitter note to Rum. The result? A definite YES ! An intense and flavor packed drink where you get to appreciate Fernet without the toothpaste effect.

You’re not alone

If you too have trouble with Fernet but are willing to give it – and your social life in Argentina – a try, getting started with this line of cocktail making where the Branca is just an extra added bonus. You’ll appreciate more the herbal aromas if they come in a subtle amount. And who knows… maybe it will eventually “grow on you”.  

It’s not you, it’s coke…

Worrying about my condition, I one day realized there was a major element in the so beloved Argentine “cocktail” that might be causing my rejection to it: coke. I hate coke. Sure, you must be thinking what is wrong with her? But research got me to realize that I’m not the only weirdo in town!

The first step was switching coke for pomelo soda. But that didn’t help much. I needed experts help. So I went back to Verne Club, having heard they knew just how to upgrade the national trago. When I talked about my problem, the “Ferroviario” was offered to me as a simple, yet efficient cure. In this cocktail, coke is replaced by a mix of soda, sweetened up by a subtle touch of Punt e Mes.

‘Prado y Neptuno’ has a reputation for working magic with Fernet Branca. Their cocktail “A Gentleman’s Best Friend” featured here.

The result? I was satisfied with the much richer, less sugary and plastic-like flavor than coke’s. But hell… I couldn’t help feeling the Listerine effect in my mouth. It’s worth a shot though and can be easy replicated at home. 

My next move was going to one of Villa Crespo’s time-honored favorite: 878. There, I was introduced to the Julep Carpano, a reinterpretation of a vermouth and rum based cocktail. In this recipe, Fernet and Punt e Mes share the initial role, while grapefruit juice sweetened up with a little homemade syrup plays a secondary – but crucial – part: bringing up the freshness and breaking the bitterness apart.

The mix works way better than coke, making the drink considerably lighter in texture and richer in flavors. Plus, it is a recipe you can also try to make at home as the main ingredients are easy to find. It won’t be half as good as the 878’s preparation, but it will beat by far the regular Fernet-Coca combo. 

I kept on looking for coke alternatives and ended up at Nana’s Rosedal (full disclosure: The Bubble’s Happy Hours take place there but this recommendation is based solely on flavor and quality). There, coke was nowhere to be found, and was instead replaced by lighter, fresher ginger soda. I love ginger, and I’m fully convinced it will make any recipe taste better. It seemed like a perfect settle. The spicy and peppery ginger aroma, sweetened up with an orange syrup seemed to diminish the herbal punch of Fernet.

It did the job, I was drinking Fernet without making a face. Still I wasn’t ready to commit. With a ginger beer in hand (La Serrana, craft beer), I decided to take it to the next level. I left the ginger ale behind, used the whole beer: not only did it have a heavier body but also a much more concentrated ginger flavor. I had no orange syrup and thought a bit of zest will do just fine. Then, I went completely crazy and followed “La Branca” recipe, adding a shot of Tequila to the mix, right after pouring the right amount of Fernet.

Success ! I had found my way into tolerating – even enjoying – a drink with Fernet.

The only issue with this drink was and still is: there’s no way I could go through all of that process (including  finding and affording the beer) every time I get together with friends.

Bottom Line:

There is life beyond Cocacola. Replacing the extra heavy and super sweet soda for a peppery ginger ale, or an intense and almost spicy ginger beer will give Fernet a whole other dimension of flavor, making it less aggressive to the palate. You can also just go for regular soda and try adding up other sweeteners or bitters that are more suitable to you coke-intolerance. Just keep in mind your Argentine friends will still judge you for your Fernet drinking snobbery.

This intense research took me to realize Fernet and I are never going to be good friends, but we have at last reached a settlement we can both live with.