Chances are, if you live in Buenos Aires, you probably have at least one craft beer joint in a three block radius around your house, your office, or your university. These places have been exploding all over town over the last few years, and going out for beers has become the go-to plan for friends and coworkers alike.
But there’s more to life than IPA and Golden Ale, you know? Cocktails have been experiencing a bit of a renaissance of late, with all sorts of spirits fighting to steal some of the limelight away from the almighty foamy beverage.
In the midst of all of this, there’s a brand-new bar in Palermo Soho that might just be onto the next big thing, and it found inspiration in an old Argentine friend, one made of myrrh, rhubarb, chamomile, cardamom, aloe and saffron (among other herbs) and whose name has been engraved in Argentine lore since God knows how long: Fernet.
The place was christened, quite simply, as La Fernetería, and it set its eyes on quite the lofty goal: to take Fernet from the popular “I can serve it at home with a bottle of Coca-Cola” place it currently holds in Argentine’s hearts and minds, and elevate it to the cocktail pantheon usually reserved for gin, vodka, and whiskey.
The History Behind Argentina’s Love with Fernet
There are several versions as to the origins of Fernet. Some say it was created in France, some in Czechoslovakia, some in Austria. But the most widespread belief is it comes from the Italian city of Milan by pharmacist Bernando Branca (yes, THAT Branca) and a Swedish doctor whose last name was Fernet. As you might expect, this story is heavily disputed by other Italian brands like Ramazzoti and Vittone, both of whom attribute the creation of the drink to their own founders.
Regardless of who you decide to believe, the truth is it arrived in Argentina at the turn of the 20th century with the great wave of European immigration. Back then, it was mainly used as a digestive liquor but in time it began to be mixed with water, seltzer, and even vermouth, making its way to the cocktail scene.
Fernet’s popularity pretty much exploded from then on, with Córdoba and Buenos Aires becoming the main centers of consumption. In the 80s, came one of the biggest breakthroughs in Fernet’s national history when somebody decided to mix it up with Coca-Cola and create the immortal Fernet con Coca, a drink that has become a staple of local drinking idiosyncrasy.
Fernet’s Time Might Be Now
The two men behind La Fernetería are Diego Diaz Varela and Luis Marín, who have established their new creation in one of the busiest areas of Buenos Aires nightlife, just three blocks from Plaza Serrano in Palermo. “We rented an old workshop and have been working non-stop for seven months to turn it into what it is today,” explains Díaz Varela.
“The idea was to communicate the large variety of Fernets that are available in Argentina today. We want to be able to bring different varieties from the United States and the Czech Republic, in the future as well.”
La Fernetería is divided into two areas. One is la Fernetería Aperitivo, which has five taps of different brands, from the more traditional powerhouses like Branca and 1882, to more artisanal players like Beney, Nero 53 and Cestari. The other area is La Fernetería Bar & Eatery, which offers a broader selection of Italian-inspired cocktails and even culinary creations concocted by chef Rodrigo Sieiro.
“We felt the market was just overcrowded with beer places so we wanted to let people try Italian cocktails, including Fernet,” Díaz Varela explains. “Fernet is so ingrained in our culture that we just figured people will like this. Buenos Aires is the only place in the world were Branca has a factory outside of Milan, for example. So that tells you something.”
La Fernetería Assembles a Dream Team
Diego and Luis recruited a who’s-who of Argentine bartending who had two main missions for opening night. One was to create a cocktail that had Fernet at its core, to be served at the Aperitivo area. The other was to create cocktails inspired by ingredients from ten different regions of Italy, all to be served in the massive bar top at the middle of the Bar & Eatery area. The team is made up of Mona Gallosi, Federico Cuco, Matías Merlo, Sebas Atienza and Gon Cabado.
Cabado, for example, has had a special place in his heart for Fernet, ever since he was a teenager. “You usually start with beer and then you move on to Fernet because everybody likes it,” Cabado recalls. “At the beginning it’s a difficult flavor to get accustomed to but then you try it with Coca-Cola and your palate starts getting used to it. I don’t want to sound too philosophical but it’s kind of in our DNA, we have an ability to interpret it and enjoy it. I’ve tried a lot of drinks in my life, but when I get together with my friends I still drink Fernet con Coca.“
Cabado’s cocktail is inspired in this feeling of familiarity and nostalgia. Inspired by a classical cocktail called the Ferroviario, his version has Fernet, grapefruit juice, rosemary syrup, and seltzer water.
“It’s simple, yet retains all the complexity from Fernet’s bitterness and sweetness. The rosemary gives it some freshness, the grapefruit emphasizes the bitter flavor, and seltzer water is so very Argentine. It’s always a challenge for Fernet’s taste to persist, I never want to do anything to overshadow it.”
Although Fernet’s popularity in Argentina is pretty much unmatched, it has had trouble with breaking several stereotypes and barriers in the past. Díaz Varela explains: “A classic problem that bars have faced is that people ask for Fernet con Coca not how the bartender would prepare it, but how they’re accustomed to preparing it at home, which is usually very diluted.”
To prepare for this, La Fernetería offers two ratio options, that play to all audiences: one is 50/50 with Fernet and any mixer (Coca-Cola for example) evenly matched. The other is 70/30, with Fernet taking center stage.
So, is the Fernet revival bound to dethrone beer or at least make a dent on its popularity? Only time will tell. But at least the popular drink is getting people excited about the possibilities. “I think Fernet deserved this,” says Cabado.
“To start using it again in cocktails is really good since it’s such a familiar taste for us. Sometimes people fear that popular things will lose their touch once they get some prestige, but I think it’s the other way around. Everybody’s gonna drink it now.”