If you’ve been in Buenos Aires for at least a couple weeks, it’s likely that you are aware of fernet con coca, and have been encouraged to give it a try. I’ve witnessed many people taste fernet for the first time in their lives. The reactions are entertaining and usually negative. They describe it tasting similar to cough medicine, Pinesol, licorice, and/or shit. Don’t let this stop you from giving it a try. The first taste of fernet is much like your first beer, cigarette, or sexual experience. It leaves you feeling confused, disoriented, and against all logic wanting another taste. By your third fernet, you’ll be hooked and cannot imagine a life worth living without it. Ok, I’m exaggerating a bit, but the stuff tastes damn good and is slightly addicting.
The massive fernet consumption in Argentina might lead you to believe it is a national drink, however it’s actually an Italian liqueur. Fernet is a bitter digestive that contains a well-guarded mix of 40 herbs and spices. It’s known to contain at least chamomile, myrrh, aloe, cardamon, and saffron. Apparently, the Branca family has a strangle hold on the saffron market, as they account for 75% of the world’s consumption of the spice. Saffron costs about $900 a pound.
Fernet was created in1845 originally as a “health tonic.” It was marketed being a cure-all from treating everything from menstrual cramps to cholera. Subsequently, it was sold in pharmacies during prohibition in the United States. Not surprisingly, fernet became more popular than Keystone Light at a freshmen frat party. However, it lost its popularity with end of prohibition, when new legal options abounded.
So how did a bitter Italian liqueur become all the rage in Argentina? According to Fernet-Branca, Argentina is its number one market. The Argentines even dedicated songs to fernet; Vilma Palma e Vampiros – Fernet con Coca, and it wasn’t some sort of Branca commercial, but a song made out of love for fernet. This is pure rumor, so if I’m wrong you can call me an idiot and enlighten me in the comment section below, but reportedly fernet became popular during the Malvinas conflict in 1982. Students in Cordoba rejected British Whisky and drank fernet instead, and the craze caught on from there.
There are other ways to enjoy fernet, besides mixing it with Coca-Cola that do not obscure the full flavor of fernet. These, however, are for the fernet initiated. The weak of heart need not apply. The most intense is obviously a straight shot of fernet. If you attempt to order just a shot of fernet here, the bartenders will look at you like you’re a crazy yanqui and try to talk you out of it. In San Francisco a shot of fernet with a ginger ale chaser is the preferred style. While, the Italians tend to enjoy their fernet with soda water. Another variation is vermouth, soda water, and fernet. There are other cocktails that include fernet, but these are the most popular methods.
Selecting the right brand of fernet is quite important. Existing are 3 tiers of fernet quality. The best fernet is without a doubt Fernet Branca, the original. The second tier includes brands such as 1882, Ramazzotti, and Cinzano. These brands are definitely drinkable, but just don’t taste as good. Fernet Branca recently released an advertising campaign “Sin Branca No Hay Fernet,” positioning the other brands as imitators. It’s brilliant marketing, and I have to agree, they’re right. The third tier is not considered safe for human consumption. This stuff doesn’t even taste remotely close to fernet. Unless you some sort of masochist, do not under any circumstance drink Abuelo, Ottone, or any other fernet brand under $15 pesos. John Daly even reportedly turned his nose up to an Ottone con Coca during his trip to Buenos Aires.
In addition to the folk remedies, some fernet drinkers claim that fernet is somehow a more pure drink that doesn’t cause hangovers, but cures them. It’s also said a fernet drunk is more lucid. Like any first-rate journalist, I conducted some primary research to verify these claims. Unfortunately, I cannot confirm any. I woke up this morning feeling like I got ran over by a freight train. I’m blaming the sugar from the Coca-Cola. One friend reported that my behavior could only be considered appropriate if “you were a cast member on the Jersey Shore.” Hangover? Yes. Lucidity? Not exactly. Yours truly recommends moderate consumption. You can test out the hangover cure claim yourself.