Argentina loves its Fernet, a bitter Italian liquor

CNN  — 

Think medicine tastes awful? Maybe Fernet isn’t the drink for you.

To some palates, the incredibly bitter Italian liquor is worse than cough syrup. Bizarrely though, in Argentina it’s so popular that the country now consumes more than 75% of all Fernet produced globally. And since the drink is traditionally mixed with Coca-Cola in an ice-filled glass, it also contributes to making Argentina one of the planet’s highest Coke consumers.

People here knock back about four times the global Coca-Cola average.

Fernet and Coke is so popular in Argentina that the country now hosts the only Fernet production facility outside Milan – the Fratelli Branca distillery on the outskirts of Buenos Aires. There, even marketing manager Heman Mutti acknowledges that the drink possesses a medicinal air.

“Fernet was initially sold in Italian pharmacies” as a digestive aid, he says.

The drink reached Argentinian shores in the late 19th century along with European migrants and soon became one of the country’s cultural mainstays, along with tango, barbecue, mate and dulce de leche. Testament to its importance to the Argentinian way of life, in 2014 Fernet was added to a price-freeze program to protect it from skyrocketing inflation.

Rhubarb and roots

Fernet owes its unconventional taste to a top secret recipe that involves about 40 different herbs including saffron, rhubarb, cardamom, myrrh, chamomile, aloe and gentian root.

Juan Chico, manager of BARTOK bar and restaurant in the upscale Palermo neighborhood in Buenos Aires, says Fernet is the most widely consumed liquor in the restaurant.

Although the bar displays an array of spirit and wine bottles, Chico sells on average 70 glasses of Fernet a day. He claims that the central Argentine city of Cordoba alone consumes more Fernet than all of Italy, largely because of its strong Italian heritage.

That’s often a surprise to Italian visitors, some of whom struggle to comprehend its popularity.

“It had been two years since I’d seen anyone drink Fernet in Italy,” says Italian nightclub promoter Giovanni Digliardi, who did a double take the first time he stepped into an Argentine bar and was immediately offered a “Fernecola” – Fernet mixed with Coke.

Digliardi, who moved to Buenos Aires in 2008, recalls his grandfather drinking Fernet as a digestif with a glass of hot water.

He’s still baffled by the fact that Argentinians pair the beverage with food at dinners and social events.

“To be honest, Fernet isn’t a proper drink like caipirinha or pisco sour,” he says.

‘A bitter kiss that makes your eyes close in disgust’

Never again? Despite initial revulsion, Fernet often gets them in the end.

Despite it’s popularity, for many Argentinians, Fernet is an acquired taste.

When psychologist Florencia Martinez, a native of Gualeguaychu in Argentina’s Entre Rios province, first sipped it, the verdict was straightforward: she poured it away in horror.

“Totally disgusting,” she confesses, letting out a “bleargh” and lowering her eyebrows, still outraged by the memory.

After that she wouldn’t “get her nose close to a bottle of Fernet for many years,” preferring gin and tonic.

Time passed and disgust faded.

She started swallowing the liquor toward the end of nights with friends because she liked “the refreshing and sweet taste of Coke.”

“And this was the road of no return,” she says, laughing. “It became my liquor of choice.”

It’s a familiar story among Fernet aficionados.

Typically, the initial tasting is a hostile experience, but the drink eventually wins over its audience.

“We met here for the first time, the womanizer Fernet I had heard so much about,” romanticizes Yasmin Simeonova, an architect from Macedonia working in Buenos Aires.

“Trying it out was like a kiss, a bitter kiss that burns your tongue and makes your eyes close in disgust.”

Herb freshness

Simeonova says at first she questioned the sanity of those who championed the drink.

That changed.

“After three years in Buenos Aires, I now have a very strong and passionate relationship with Fernet,” she says.

“I love it and it loves me. We’re having fun times until early mornings, in plastic glasses, half-cut bottles of Coke, wandering in streets, below bridges and across borders.”

Drinking Fernet from a plastic Coke bottle is known as “viajero” (meaning “traveler” in Spanish).

At night, especially during weekends, youngsters and older people alike roam the streets with their containers of mixed drinks.

Fernet also seems to win over experienced sweet-toothed drinkers.

“I’m a product of the U.S. university system, meaning I spent the better part of four years of my life drinking nauseatingly sweet grain alcohol mixed with Kool-Aid,” says Emily Sarah, managing partner of a financial advice company in Buenos Aires.

“Needless to say, Fernet’s herby freshness was a pleasant surprise and lacked the negative associations with the unpleasant consequences of sweet drinks,” she says.

According to its makers, Fernet’s recipe has remained unchanged for 170 years.

Whatever Argentina’s drinkers are suffering from, clearly this “disgusting” Italian medicine is the cure.

A native of Morocco, journalist Kamilia Lahrichi has written for The Huffington Post, VICE News, Global Post, South China Morning Post and China Dialogue, among others. She’s based in Argentina.