Argentina’s Beloved, Two-Ingredient Cocktail Transcends Age, Class, and Economic Turmoil

Tim McKirdy Argentina’s Beloved, Two-Ingredient Cocktail Transcends Age, Class, and Economic Turmoil

5 minute Read

Though neither of its components are national inventions, Fernet and Coke, or fernet con coca, is an Argentine icon. The bittersweet concoction, with a rich, gold-tinted foam, transcends age, sex, and social standing in South America’s second largest country.

It is an oxymoronic cocktail. Simple in composition, comprising just its eponymous ingredients and ice, the inky black mixture tastes complex, with a list of competing and complementary flavors. Fernet adds herbal medicinal notes and a shock of black licorice, while Coke brings balance with sweet caramel and vanilla notes.

For a smooth delivery, the drink must be served ice cold. Perfecting its velvety foam, meanwhile, takes the kind of skill and experience normally attributed to those delivering picture-perfect pints of Guinness.

Fernet and Coke is an honorary guest at each and every one of Argentina’s most important occasions. It is infaltable —a must— at any self-respecting asado, or barbecue, Jordan Macuka, a musician in Buenos Aires, says. Head to one of the city’s bars on any weeknight, and you’ll find locals enjoying a post-work fernet con coca. If one glass leads to four, and the night ends at a late-night tango show or in one of Buenos Aires’ bustling boliches (nightclubs), guess what they’ll be pouring?

“Fernet is associated with going out and having a good time,” Argentine software engineer Agustín Gambina says. “And it’s a great alternative for those that don’t like to drink beer or wine.”

While alcohol is strictly forbidden at rock concerts and soccer games, Fernet and Coke is omnipresent at the previa (pregame). “Fernet con coca is the holy wine of Argentine rock nacional,” Makuka says.

Preparation of an on-the-go cocktail involves carefully removing the top half of an empty two-liter bottle of Coke with scissors, before burning the freshly cut border with a lighter to smooth its sharp edge. Ice, Fernet, and Coke are then added in liberal quantities, before the drink is passed around among friends — old and new.

Fernet and Coke cocktails are associated with having a good time in Argentina, and are omnipresent at social events.

“Today, fernet con coca is the most-consumed mixed drink in Argentina,” Adrian “Champy” Cabral, a leading Argentine bartender and owner of the Club del Barman cocktail school, says.

It’s a surprisingly modern phenomenon.

Fernet arrived on Argentina’s shores with a wave of Italian immigrants at the end of the 19th century. “In Italy, Fernet was traditionally consumed as a digestif after-dinner shot,” Cabral says. The bitter liqueur was also consumed as part of a Carajillo de Fernet — in which three dashes of Fernet are added to a morning espresso — or in a more refreshing form with soda water, he says. It was nearly a century before people started widely consuming Fernet with Coke, circa 1990.

When Argentines talk about Fernet, they are almost exclusively referring to Branca. The brand is often linked to the creation of the bitter digestif, and, while other international and domestic options are available, Branca is undoubtedly the local favorite. By 1941, demand for Branca was so strong that Branca-Fratelli (Fernet-Branca’s parent company) opened a factory in Buenos Aires. To this day, it remains the only one outside of its native Milan.

Over time, Branca positioned itself as an integral part of Argentine culture. In one now-classic advertising campaign, a man in traditional tango attire dances with a human-sized Fernet bottle. “Argentina es Tango. Fernet es Branca,” the poster claims, suggesting, perhaps, that if Argentina is tango, then Branca is the Fernet that Argentines would invite to the dance.

When Argentines talk about Fernet, they are almost exclusively referring to Branca.

Though popular throughout the country, Fernet and Coke is most strongly linked to the province of Cordoba. Legend has it that the combination, known locally as fernandito, was invented here in the 1970s by a local drummer, Oscar “el Negro” Becerra. The story goes that, one day, Becerra had no soda water to mix with his Fernet, so he added Coca-Cola instead. It had the desired effect of diluting the alcohol and adding effervescence, but the sweet cola also crucially counteracted Fernet’s astringent bitterness.

This was an age before Instagram and social media, a time when things took slightly longer to reach “viral” popularity. So for the next decade or so, consumption of Fernet and Coke was confined to homes and family asados.

In the early ’90s, Branca noticed the growing popularity of Fernet and Coke in Cordoba and saw a potentially lucrative opportunity. It launched a series of national advertising campaigns actively encouraging the combination, hoping that Argentines would drink it outside the home, in bars and nightclubs.

In 2016, Hernán Mutti, head of marketing at Fratelli Branca, told Fortune, “We had to convince Argentina that this was the way to drink Fernet: to be shared between friends. It was being drunk behind closed doors; it wasn’t a friendly product.”

Sales skyrocketed. Between 1990, and 2013, the nation’s annual output went from 1 million gallons to nearly 15 million, with a 405 percent increase between 2004 and 2015. According to IWSR, a research company specializing in global wine and spirits sales, Argentina now consumes roughly three-quarters of the world’s Fernet.

In 2014, amidst inflation, such was its importance in Argentina that Fernet-Branca was even added to the nation’s precios cuidados price-freeze program. Other items on the list included bread, milk, and beef.

THE CHANGING FACE OF FERNET

The idea of mixing Fernet with Coke might seem alien to Americans. In the U.S., particularly in San Francisco and New York, Fernet is consumed primarily as a shot. Ordering one is occasionally called a “bartender’s handshake,” such is Fernet’s popularity in the industry.

In Argentina, the opposite problem abounds. Bartenders and mixologists want to include Fernet in modern cocktails but have to convince locals that there are other, equally enjoyable ways to enjoy the liqueur, outside of the ubiquitous fernandito.

One such bartender is Diego Diaz Varela, co-owner of the recently opened La Fernetería, in Buenos Aires’ uber-cool Palermo neighborhood. “At La Fernetería, we want to display not only Fernet-Branca, but also other national producers that make their drinks with their grandparents’ recipes,” Varela says.

Varela believes that with consumers’ growing appetites for bitter drinks and cocktails, like Campari and the Negroni, Buenos Aires drinkers could come to enjoy Fernet as los abuelos did. But he recognizes the magnitude of the task. “For many in Argentina, it’s difficult to think of [consuming] Fernet in a manner other than with Coca-Cola,” he says.

HOW TO PREPARE FERNET AND COKE

When preparing a classic Fernet and Coke, “people don’t use standard measurements like a bartender might,” Varela says. For this reason, they offer two ratios at La Fernetería: 70:30 (Coke:Fernet), and 50:50. “People that are accustomed to drinking it at home are used to a stronger pour,” he says, “so most will prefer 50:50.”

Writing for La Voz, Argentine journalist José Heinz recommends pouring at a 45-degree inclination so that Coke doesn’t lose its gas. “The foam should expand [vertically] out of the glass,” he writes, “without ever leaving its circumference or escaping down the sides.” An additional ice cube can help procure the perfect foam.

CLASSIC FERNET CON COCA

Ingredients

1 part Fernet-Branca
1 part Coca-Cola

Directions

  1. Chill a highball glass with a couple of ice cubes, remove.
  2. Add Fernet-Branca, then two or three fresh ice cubes.
  3. Top up with Coca-Cola, pouring at a 45-degree angle.
  4. Add an additional ice cube if foam looks set to overflow.

Already well-versed in the realms of Fernet and Coke, or perhaps you’re sworn off Coke-infused cocktails after a bad experience with Cuba Libres? Try this modern alternative.

ITALO-ARGENTINO

Recipe courtesy of Gon Cabado and La Fernetería.

Ingredients

2 ounces fernet, such as Branca
1 ½ ounces grapefruit juice
1 ⅓ ounces rosemary simple syrup (50:50 sugar and water, infused with fresh rosemary)
1 ½ ounces Malbec
Splash of soda water

Directions

  1. Mix fernet, grapefruit juice, simple syrup, and Malbec in a highball or cooler glass.
  2. Add ice cubes.
  3. Top with soda water.
  4. Garnish with rosemary and grapefruit peel.

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