How Fernet Took Over Argentina

Argentina consumes so much of the polarizing liqueur that it has Fratelli Branca's only distillery outside of Italy.

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Nov 26 2018, 10:45pm

All photos by the author.

Fernet is one of the world’s most polarizing distilled spirits. Classier than Jäger and far more palatable than Malort, the bitter amaro makes some people wince immediately upon sipping. For others, it’s the “Bartender’s Handshake,” a bar order that signifies you have good booze taste. While the Italian liqueur has a cult following in the international bartending community, its profound popularity in Argentina is far bigger than the confines of cult status. “It originated in Italy, but became so popular that now Argentina consumes over 3 times the amount consumed in Italy,” says Diego Díaz Varela, founder and owner of La Ferneteria in Buenos Aires.

The world’s most famous fernet dates back to 1845, when Bernardino Branca combined some 27 herbs and ingredients with a grape distillate to create Fernet-Branca. “The product, Fernet-Branca, was created to help people with digestion—the motivation is to help people,” says Edoardo Branca, a sixth-generation family member managing the Fratelli Branca Group in the United States.

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Américo J. Borzone and Martín Tummino behind the bar at The Harrison Speakeasy.

In the 19th century, Italians began migrating to Argentina, becoming one of the South American country’s largest immigrant populations. Today, more than half the Argentine population has Italian ancestry. “We like to say that Argentina is all Italian and Spanish immigration,” says Martín Tummino, a bartender and cocktail consultant in Buenos Aires. “I mean my grandfather and grandmom, they were Italians or Spanish.”

The early Italian immigrants brought fernet with them to use as a digestive medicine. “The Italian people used to bring small bottles of the product and on the ships, I know they used it for medicinal purposes,” Tummino says. “Eventually it turned into a recreational thing.”

Fratelli Branca set up a distillery in Argentina to meet the demand (It’s still the only one outside of Italy). Then the spirit exploded. “It's hard to say how it became so popular, but we know that it's because the major part of the population in Argentina was Italian at the time,” says Tummino. It could have something to do with the country’s flavor preferences. “The Argentinian palate—we like bitter,” Tummino says, “Have you ever tried mate?”

Today, the country’s unofficial drink is fernet and cola. “At first it was only consumed in this way in the province of Córdoba, but later it became popular and spread to the other provinces,” explained Mauro Steinberg, a bartender at Boticario in Buenos Aires. “It’s not the most common to see [fernet] taken in shots.”

Since fernet’s one of the first spirits people generally get drunk on in Argentina, some people who experimented with cheap, off-brand fernet in their teenage years have been left with a bad taste in their mouth. “Fernandito is like you drink when you’re like 18 and you have no money,” says Tummino. “It's like what happens with tequila, too. Like people that hate tequila because they say ‘I drank so much bad tequila’ but we're not talking about the brand now, we're talking about fernet in general.”

But the positive perception of fernet overshadows those painful early memories. When the craft cocktail movement hit Buenos Aires, fernet began making its way into drinks other than Coke. If you ask the host at Nicky New York Sushi nicely to see the wine cellar, you’ll be lead through the restaurant to a wine hallway in the back, then through a hidden submarine door into The Harrison Speakeasy. It’s a surprisingly large bar for a place you didn’t expect to exist. Under soft glowing lights, Tummino pours Fernet-Branca into a shaker to prepare the Famiglia Murazzi cocktail with vermouth, lemon, and honey.

“When you put Fernet in a drink, you feel that you're putting in something from Argentina, because even it's Italian, it’s so rooted to our country,” says Tummino. “This is the country that consumes the most Fernet in the world. Nobody drinks Fernet like us.”

Behind Tummino, the back bar is packed with the usual suspects: Scotch whisky, American bourbon, French vodka. There’s a bottle of Fernet signed by the owner of the Argentine Fernet-Branca factory, too. It’s a display item now, not one that will ever be opened.

“We don't serve fernet and Coke,” Tummino says. “It's just that—we are fighting against it. You know? It's not because we don't like it. I mean, I drink fernet and Coke. We're trying to encourage people that stop drinking fernet that way and start to drink it another way.”

A ten minute walk from The Harrison gets you to La Ferneteria, Varela’s three-month-old fernet-focused bar that stocks more than the standard Fernet-Branca. “La Ferneteria was born out of our passion and desire to show everyone the different types of Fernet that are produced both locally and internationally, and the different ways you can drink it,” says Varela. “We have six different types of fernet, some industrial brands and some local artisan brands.”

Like at The Harrison, La Ferneteria has a goal of showcasing fernet without cola. “This doesn’t mean you can’t have a traditional Fernet in La Ferneteria,” Varela says. “You can mix your favorite fernet with any of the six mixers we have available: Colas, orange juice, grapefruit juice, tonic, soda.” Customers can also request their fernet mixed like they would at home: 50-50 to cola, or 70-30 or 90-10.

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The signed bottle at The Harrison

Varela and his partners Santiago Rubio, Luis Marin, and Bruno Cattorini tapped some of Argentina’s best bartenders to create the cocktail menu. “One of the cocktails we serve here is by far my favorite: Fernet Spritz. It has Cynar, Martini Rosso, Fernet and beer foam,” Varela says.

Despite fernet’s old roots, there’s no sign of its popularity slowing down. The drink is still consumed by young people, and more fernets are coming to market. “There is a trend of people who produce fernet in an artisanal way and then sell it at fairs or market it,” says Boticario’s Steinberg.

Industry insiders like Varela have high hopes for the amaro outside of Argentina. “We see a future were fernet is not only in the popular world but also in the world of high end signature cocktails,” says Varela. “Our idea is to try and open as many Ferneterias as possible, in every possible country.”