Posted on April 27, 2010 | By The Bon-Vivant | 1 Comment
Since I’ve already discussed Pisco and the Pisco Sour, national drinks of both Peru and Chile, fairness demands that I now consider Fernet-Branca, and the mixture Fernet and Coke, a drink many consider the national cocktail of Argentina.
Frenet-Branca is an Italian amaro, a bitter, herbal-soaked, 80 proof concoction marketed as a digestif and wildly popular in Argentina (with Coca-Cola), Italy (with soda), and San Francisco (followed by a ginger ale chaser).
I will now let someone wittier than I describe the taste of Fernet-Branca.
When you hold a shot glass of Fernet-Branca to your nose, the first thing that strikes you is the physicality of the smell, which, if such a thing existed, is like black licorice-flavored Listerine. Put it to your lips and tip it back, and the assault on the throat and sinuses is aggressively medicinal. For many so-called “Fergins” uninitiated to the drink, it can be accompanied by a feeling that may either bring a tear to the eye or lunch to the esophagus. As a bitter Italian aperitif of more than 40 herbs and spices, it most often gets compared to Campari and Jägermeister, though by measure of accuracy, it’s equally similar to Robitussin or Pennzoil.
That sounds accurate to me.
In fact, if I were to characterize the taste in a single word, it would be “medicinal”. This is not an accident. From its invention in 1845, in Milan, Italy, Fernet-Branca has been marketed as having near magical curative powers, capable of fixing everything from menstrual cramps to cholera. Indeed, the medicinal properties were so well-known, that during Prohibition the federal government allowed Fernet to be legally sold in drugstores. As a result, the drink became so popular in America that the Branca family opened a distillery in New York City.
No one really knows what’s in Fernet, as the recipe is a closely-held secret. All we can say with certainty is that it’s got saffron, as the Branca family buys up three-quarters of the world’s production, and that it now has a reduced level of opiates, the result of a demand by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms that the level of narcotics in Fernet be tamped down a bit.
During the nearly eight months I lived in Buenos Aires, I tired to acquire a taste for Fernet and Coke, a drink that is for young Porteños what the Pisco Sour is for the people of Santiago and Lima. However, unlike, the Pisco Sour, Fernet and Coke does not go down easy. Even with nine parts Coke to one part Fernet, the mixture retains all of Fernet’s intense bitterness, just adding a layer of caffeinated sweetness.
I do occasionally enjoy Fernet as bracing digestif, although my favorite Argentine meals usually ended with a small limoncello. Unfortunately, despite numerous attempts, I could never develop the necessary appreciation for Fernet and Coke.