Within two short decades of his arrival in Argentina, American immigrant Melville Sewell Bagley had not only created an iconic national drink, but single-handedly shaped the future of the country’s trademark and patent laws.
Born in Bangor, Me., Bagley was working in a dry goods store in New Orleans, La., when the American Civil War broke out in 1861. Bagley emigrated to Argentina the following year and started working at a Buenos Aires pharmacy, La Estrella (which still exists to this day). There, he began playing around with botanical distills that could be used to cure digestive problems.
From these experimentations came Hesperidina, a flavored aperitif that is a local icon but almost unknown beyond Argentina (for now). It’s similar in style to triple sec, but lighter and less sweet. At 26 percent ABV, it’s served neat, over ice, or in a traditional cocktail with soda water and lemon juice.
Prior to the drink’s release, Bagley advertised his product on posters around the city, proclaiming “Hesperidina is Coming.” Local newspapers picked up on the story. By the time Hesperidina was released, on December 24, 1864, there was already keen demand from bars, restaurants, and consumers.
Thanks to Hesperidina’s overnight success, rival drinks companies soon started producing cheaper imitations. To fight back, Bagley requested an audience with Argentina’s then-President, Nicolås Avellaneda, to convince him to create a National Register of Trademarks and Patents. Bagley presented a copy of U.S. trademark laws and, soon thereafter, similar legislation was drafted and passed. In 1876, Hesperidina became Argentina’s first registered trademark.
(Bagley’s attention to detail/paranoia led him to trademark Hesperidina’s bottle shape, too. He commissioned the New York Bank Note Company to produce labels for his bottles that were impossible to forge.)
The aperitif holds enormous cultural sway in the country. It was used as an ailment for sick soldiers during South America’s War of the Triple Alliance (1864-1870), pitting Paraguay against Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay. At the peak of its popularity, in the 1950s, Argentines consumed 250,000 liters of Hesperidina monthly.
Bagley died on July 14, 1880, but his company remained in the family for more than a century. National drinks conglomerate Tres Blasones bought Hesperidina in 2004, and, in May 2018, it was purchased again by another corporation, Grupo Cepas.
The company has big plans for Bagley’s liqueur. “Currently, the challenge for national drinks with centuries-long histories [such as Hesperidina] is to go out and conquer other countries,” Hernán Tantardini, Grupo Cepas’ director of sales and marketing, told Argentina’s national newspaper La Nación earlier this year.
Yesterday, Argentina. Tomorrow, the world?