Fernet Branca is the official unofficial drink of Argentina.
I know that Fernet Branca is Italian, in some sense that others might call primary and definitive; for over a century and a half, its complex aromatic seasoning has been a closely-guarded trade secret held by the family-run Fratelli Branca distillery in Milanese. But I do not recognize that legally-binding ownership because I am Argentinian where it counts. We Argentinians do not often take the law’s side; we root for the smuggler, the counterfeiter, the bank robber, the tax dodger, the blackmailer, and the illegitimate son. We call them “natural sons,” in fact; blackmailer, or chanta, is literally a term of endearment.
Argentine-Italian relations are always vexed—the name “Mussolini” will get you in the right ballpark for why—but no Argentine anti-hero or politician is complete without a good Italian tailor. Italy, for us, is a subcontinent, not a country, and synonymous with taste, a taste that is licorice-rhubarb with the subtlest nutmeg back. Perhaps for reasons of pride (or our tasteful reserve), we don’t talk much about our secret custody battle over the national drink. But for those of us who drink with pride, depth, and history, el Fernet, the licorice-eyed demon, the rhubarb purple drank of the pampas, well, it’s as Argentinian as Borges. There’s a story there, and it is a good one that I will tell you, but first, let me pour you a flight; if you can’t roll with me at my amateur food writer, you don’t deserve my 4AM Borgesian discourse on Argentinity.
If it’s 5pm where you are and local law doesn’t say otherwise, feel free to use this as a recipe for disaster, in the comfort of your home or temporary shelter. I recommend making them all at once, upfront, before your frontal lobe or your real friends have a chance to save you from what’s clearly a bad idea.
Ingredients. You’ll need:
- 1 750mL bottle fernet branca original flavor;
- 500mL or more club soda;
- 250mL or more of Coca Cola (cane sugar, ideally, better off-brand than off-sugar);
- 250mL or more of totally garbage red wine (boxed Malbec if that’s a thing where you live, or funky day-old Pinot noir failing that);
- 250mL or more of proper English-smuggler tonic water;
- 2 shots of Cynar artichoke bitters or other Italian savory liquor;
- A lemon and a lime, or maybe a Meyer and a Key if they’re handy, but I’m not above concentrate (just make sure it’s not that syrupy British nonsense);
- Oh, and a tray of 12 ice cubes.
Architecture of catastrophe: From left to right, you’ll need two high ball glasses, a shot glass, three tumblers, and three more high ball glasses. This makes enough for a drinking party of 2-8, but if you can’t share glasses with any of the people you’ve invited then you’ve missed the point already and we might be wasting our time, so invite fewer people or just get over yourself. If four or more people are drinking, you might want to double or triple the flight; if fewer than two people are drinking, tell a close, responsible friend where you’ll be in case you start texting them tango lyrics a few hours from now and they have to come rescue you. Not kidding. Check the fire extinguishers while you’re at it.
Avanti. From left to right, these are the ice cubes you will drop into the glasses: 3, 0, 0, 3, 0, 2, 2, 2. These are the shots of Fernet: 0, 4, 1, 2, 2, 3, 2, 2. Now’s a good time to turn off your phone and take the battery out.
- fill to half with room temp tap water;
- 2 shots cynar + lemon rim + lemon peel (tons) + soda or half-soda half-tonic up + dash of Peychaud or similar if you have it;
- fill to half with red wine;
- smash in quarter lemon + tonic up;
- smash in a quarter lemon + soda up;
- cane-sugar coke up.
- Cut two quarters out of that lime and keep the leftovers on hand.
- If you’re alone, it’s not too late to designate a second alternate.
- If you’re home, the softest pants are urgent. Again, if you can’t wear those in front of your guests, you picked the wrong guests or the wrong study-abroad experience.
- If you insist on going out later, maybe hide your car keys and credit card from yourself, then draw a little stick-figure house on your wrist with your address below it. On your other wrist, write “Never see Memento.” Borges would’ve hated that movie more than Fellini would have.
Flight time. Plot twist: we’re going to drink from RIGHT to LEFT:
Fernet con coca, aka Fernando. Take a sip. Yup, that’s cane sugar. Depending on your tolerance for sweets, you might have just developed diabetes; I won’t bore you with magical realist jive about cane fields or stills from the classic film-essay Tucumán arde because this is an introductory course and lots of Argentinians don’t even realize sugarcane played a pivotal role in their nation’s economic history. Hell, most of us can’t even tell the difference between sugar cane and bamboo, or where to buy sugar grown in Argentina. But there are other flavors hiding in that thicket of cane: if you can’t taste the licorice and you want to, or if your liver is already seizing up, try squeezing one of those lime quarters gently onto the top, then sip without stirring, and repeat in little incremental squeezes until those top-sips are a tad too citrus-tart for you. Then drop in the remaining un-squeezed quarter-lime and swirl it around, with a spoon if you’re fancy.
Getting fancy with Fernando is a waste of effort; you are drinking sweetened coke. Your friend Fernando promised you a chill living room party but when you got there, you couldn’t shake the feeling—no matter how old you are—that you are a college student crashing a rowdy and grown-up apartment party where everyone is smoking and no one knows anyone. Is the stereo on? Make sure something very uncool is playing, maybe Charly Garcia’s 90s albums or, why not, Soda Stereo, so uncool that they’re perennially cool enough. (Youtube before proceeding for the full effect.) Fernando may or may not be trying to have sex with you, but you definitely remember telling him the gender(s) you date, and you remember him changing the subject to invite you on a “road trip” involving long distance buses and Bolivian hostels, with some buddies, and he really genuinely doesn’t mind if you drink fast or slow or even leave it as-is on the table after just three tentative, polite sips. Fernet with coke is Argentina’s rum-and-coke, Cuba libre, and jack-n-coke all rolled into one, from the sea to the Andes, from the Amazon to the Antarctic. An Argentinian might grow up to be a very different Fernet drinker, but Fernando stays in touch, he was our first drink and he rolls through late night just for a quick hey, how have you BEEN though. Fernando never changes, that intense eye contact and, good god, that hair. Fernando.
El abuelo tano. Not every middle-class Argentinian has a European grandparent, but any Argentinian who considers themselves middle class has a grandfather who spent all day at a European club (and, vice-versa, having a grandfather who spent all day at a European club is the badge of membership for those who need one). Maybe the club was somewhat ironically called a “sporting club,” or maybe it was a soft-Gregorian orthodox mutual benefit society. Heck, some of the Bansai/Haiku clubs, union halls, and Sirio-Lebanese aid associations were “European” for our purposes here, although numerically speaking, the majority were named after, funded by, and/or funneled money to a pre-Unification Italian city-state or some separatist Spanish subculture.
What makes a club European in Argentina is that they’re open all the time, and most of the people in there all of the time are old men speaking Spanish, albeit something that people in the rest of Latin America wouldn’t call Spanish. (It doesn’t have to be a European language or dialect for the club to be European, keep up.) Most of these old men are drinking soda water on ice with a slice of citrus and a shot or two of something else tinting the soda: from most to least likely, it could be various Vermouths, Fernet, Campari, “gin,” “Obrero” (I’ll circle back later), terrifying moonshine schnapps, “grappa,” actual gin, or maaaybe whiskey if it’s a club putting out land-holding airs. If it’s five, only some of these old men are sloppy, but none of them can tell you how many they had before this one.
That’s what Argentines call doing a Europe, and maybe your grandpa wasn’t Italian so you can’t call him an old tano, but that soda drink in his hand is a fernet a lo tano, an Old Country spritzer. His Old Country might be a Tucumán sugarcane farm, but if he pays his club dues, he’s European, and if you can make it to the bottom of your glass without missing your European grandfather, then literally don’t bother with tango, you’re better off listening to Deadmau5 and Ariana Grande, I have nothing to teach you, get the hell out before I call club security.
Fernet a lo cheto. I love you, you’re the only cousin who really made it happen; you lived abroad and your bro Ricky really has himself a classy joint here, where did you say he borrowed the money to open it? I was planning on ordering a viejo tano cuz it’s so humid today and I just think the fernet itself is sugary enough for how thirsty I am, but I’m glad you insisted and bought me one of these things. How do you pronounce it… gimlet? Wait, it’s really called a gimlet gaucho? Not a gaucho gimlet? I mean, yeah, it’s great, yeah… would it be weird if I asked the barman for a slice of lime? I just, well, I didn’t grow up with tonic water, yeah, those girls over there are looking pretty dolled up, totally! No, I don’t think they’d dress like that for a bachelorette party, or…what? But yeah, it’s just, I’m kind of thirsty, do they have a water station in this place? Clubbing? Tonight? Maybe.
Fernet trash. You only need four or five cousins for one of them to actually drink fernet trashes at home, and maybe that guy Ricky who runs that gaucho bar called him fernet trash to his face once and he took it the wrong way and got a little knifey, I dunno, I’m not here to talk trash on my cousin. He was just a big rocker, like, I’m pretty sure he only technically went to college, and it took him a decade and he came back with a Córdoba accent and he still goes back for these trashy outdoor rock festivals every summer. The festivals where they hook up washing machines to mix the absolute worst red wine in existence with a few handles of fernet, or at least, with black stuff in fernet handles, and then they pump it out the exhaust pipe of the washing machine straight into the gaping maws of an insane crowd that makes my cousin look sensible by comparison. Even if 99% of Argentinians will never go to that kind of party, my cousin is there every year flagellating himself for the whole family, for the whole country, really holding it down. If you’ve emptied all three glasses so far, and this one was your favorite, I have nothing to teach you but you should call an ambulance to take you straight to rehab before proceeding any further. Can you return these sunglasses to my cousin when you go?
Cocktail casero. So wait, you said you grew up near here? That’s so wild, my cousin did too, I used to come here every summer and stay with my… my uncle and aunt. Did you ever come here when it was that weird gaucho bar, owner was this slick-haired blonde guy with a fake British accent, went by Ricky? Oh, I just got the first thing on the menu, I’m not much of a cocktail guy. Oh really? That’s great, I didn’t know they were into that stuff, I just imagine them walking around drinking room temperature scotch from the bottle. Man, that sounds great, I… oh yeah, that’s really… it’s like flowers, I don’t really know the names of… yeah. Mine’s just Fernet and Cynar and some kind of homemade… um, bitters? Yeah, I guess that is a lemon. I mean, I dunno, I like fernet and I like artichokes so I figured what could go wrong. It’s good for sipping on. But tell me more about you.
Last stop, neat shot, Fernet pleno. Do you have another shot glass for me? Yeah, thanks. So, yeah, the thing in itself. You can’t start with neat fernet, it’s like staring at the sun; sometimes old Italian men do shots of fernet as a digestive aid after too much ragù but it’s not a shot anyone likes, exactly, and it’s a means to no good end. Neat, chilled shot glass if you really wanna get weird about it, but it will still taste like medicine. Mostly you taste the licorice and maybe you taste the rhubarb, if you’re a foodie, but you also feel like your tongue got dragged softly with a thin iron wire, or maybe a dirty one depending on the weather. It’s not as bad, some would say, as an old school “Amargo obrero,” those terrifyingly cheap black bitters with a badly printed label and a South Italian last name, oily little syrups that cloy and clove and dandelion the stomachs of winos and bums, an Old Country version of Mad Dog 20/20. But I’m not one of those haters and for me it’s not an insult to say that the Branca recipe redeemed the obrero in both meanings of the word: the cost-effective medicinal bitters (amargos obreros) and the eponymous working stiffs (obreros) that drink it.
But aren’t amargos obreros and other plastic-bottle bitters more alcoholic than Fernet, you ask, or at least taste more likely to leave a faint taste of wood grain alcohol after?
Yes, I’m no chemist but I know what you mean. Essentially, Fernet is a subtly alcoholic version of that off-brand cola concentrate you dribble into soda fresh out of the seltzer bottle, or into the bottles you just nervously gassed with some flimsy countertop appliance, when you grow up poor, or when you’re staying with grandparents who get soda delivered to their back door instead of milk. It’s not Cola flavored exactly and it’s not Dr. Pepper but it’s also not Chartreuse: it’s 40 proof and it tastes how an Argentinian who’s never gotten a passport would expect Italian cola to taste.
Or how it really does taste, if you’ve had the Chinotto flavored Pellegrinos. The story which I refuse to fact-check because if it were true the internet would and could never find out about it, is the origin myth of my personal Argentina, the founding of the republic in my childhood backyard, as it were. The Brancas owned an “amaro” (bitters) factory in an actual city called Milan, which actually sent thousands and thousands of desperate fortune seekers to Argentina between the rise of the Fratelli Branca and 1900. At least one of Milan’s seekers of Argentine new beginnings burrowed deep into that fertile but eternally unmappable middle of the country where there are way too many towns with the names “second river” and “dead friar,” repeating at regular intervals like some eerie game of Zelda. He burrowed and burrowed until he found a place one-weeks’ travel from the nearest intellectual property lawyer before taking off his Milanese bowler and removing from its lining a stolen recipe on smudged paper, and yeah, why not, Viggo Mortensen can play the Italian in this film, or Roberto Benigni, it’s the same to me. Soon the Italian bars and European clubs he’d passed through on his inland journey were being supplied with the finest Argentine Fernet Branca at a fraction of the import price, just as countless hordes of similarly wily immigrants were drunkenly inventing the “European club” and blotting out their memory of Europe (or the other Old Countries, why are you so hung up on whether they were European?).
And so: Fernet happened. A hundred years passed, and in some order or another, all the following events took place:
- Liquor became much bigger business; Instagram collapsed the distinction between marketing and peer pressure, and as everything became precious and curated everywhere.
- Someone bought or invested in or merged with (I forget and refuse to care) the conglomerate that owned the Branca factory and a few other picturesque gourmet medicinals across the alps.
- Billboards went up around San Francisco joking with America’s most aloof hipsters about Italian heritage and port town bitterness.
- Someone realized it would cost less to buy the factory in Argentina than to sue them for making unlicensed knockoff fernet.
- Oh, and at the time of the takeover, more fernet was being produced and drunk in Argentina than in the rest of the world combined, and for a fraction of the per bottle production cost, which dovetailed nicely with the advent of Fernet Branca, somehow, as an international “luxury” brand.
- The price in Argentina doubled or tripled, though with all the currency crises and beef prices quadrupling as protectionism was gutted in installments, no one noticed.
- National brands of off-brand “fernet” appeared, although cynics postulated they were just sweetened and watered-down amargos obreros, no better than the primordial ooze from which rose the brothers Branca.
Oops, that snuck up on me, we’re at The ninth circle of Hell. If Theodor Wiesengrund Adorno didn’t exist Argentina would have invented him, pieced together from all the Europeans who visited Buenos Aires, grew to hate it, and stayed there forever.
Once, a friend showed up late to a noise show to which I had showed up early, and it being a noise show, they’d had no soda water or ice or lemons at the venue’s “bar,” and I was drinking fernet and tepid tap water because sugar was giving me hives at the time and I was feeling European, now would you quit changing the subject? He never let me live it down, so I am going to advise that you take, at most, one sip of that ninth circle of hell for the sake of science before using the last ice cubes and whichever mixers are left to salvage some modicum of our dignity.