Many times it seems like Argentineans enjoy suffering; for that reason “el gaucho” feels good in the loneliness of La Pampa, the tango dancer identifies himself with the melancholic tango lyrics, and most of us choose the bitterness of mate and Fernet to share our time with friends.
I am not surprised Fernet, an alcoholic beverage made of a combination or more than 40 herbs (including rhubarb, chamomile, cardamom, aloe, saffron) based on grape alcohol, was originally a medicine. The herbalist Bernardino Branca, and his sons Luigi, Giuseppe, and Stefano along with his wife María Scala developed this bitter medicine in 1845 in Milan, Italy.
Maria Scala, known as Maria Branca, helped commercialize the drink among women, offering it as a relief for menstrual pain. She also sold it among men as a digestive medicine, also helpful to cure anxiety, back pain, headaches and stomachaches.
Although the drink was created in Italy, it became very popular in the New World. Immigrants used to smuggle it into United States and South America in their suitcases and even inside baby coffins to offset custom officials when alcohol sale was prohibited.
During the alcohol prohibition of 1920 in the United States, the fame of Fernet-Branca as the miracle drink helped it stay alive since doctors kept prescribing it as a medicine, despite its high levels of opium in it.
Nowadays, the drink has become so popular in Argentina that it is almost considered its national drink. Fernet is also gaining popularity in San Francisco, California, but according to Fernet-Branca officials, Argentina is the drink’s number one market.
In Italy, the drink is not as prestigious as in the past. “It’s drinked more in the north than center or south of Italy. This is specially because there are some better home made liquors here, especially in the south where my parents live, that are pretty much tasty and flavoured..” Pietro, economist, Bari, Italy.
What’s the taste like? Why is it so popular?
According to Nate Cavalieri, author of “Myth of Fernet”, San Francisco Weekly December 7 2005, “When you hold a shot glass of Fernet-Branca to your nose, the first thing that strikes you is the physicality of the smell, which, if such a thing existed, is like black licorice-flavored Listerine. Put it to your lips and tip it back, and the assault on the throat and sinuses is aggressively medicinal.”
Fernet has a strange taste, almost indescribable, especially because no one knows what it is made of. "There are only a small amount of people in the world who know the recipe to Fernet-Branca, and they are no telling," says Ricardo Destesano, CEO of Branca Products Argentina and family spokesperson.
"When people asking me what is in the Fernet-Branca," Destesano says, "I tell them life!"
It is possible that there might actually be “life” inside this dark beverage, but the truth is one must train his/her palate to enjoy the taste.
“I confess the first time I tried it I did not like it. In fact, my exxxx boyfriend was addicted to Fernet! Haha…and after we split.. I started to go out more often…I started drinking Fernet-with-Coke.. and I loved it! I even discovered new taste.. a mixture of herbs…and together with Coke, results in a bitter and sweet beverage…yummy, yummy…” Aldana, communicator, Caballito, Buenos Aires, Argentina.
“The first time I tried it I found it disgusting…very bitter and it wasn’t something I enjoyed. Little by little I got used to the taste of Fernet and I learned to enjoy it, but only premium brands, the other ones continue to be undrinkable…and now I like it a lot. Its bitter taste reduces the sweetness of Coca-Cola, making it a nice drink. Its menthol flavor is also very good because it is more refreshing. I drink it almost every weekend. I drink it with friends and by myself. My friends don’t like it, but I keep on drinking it…” Leandro, industrial engineering and business student, Buenos Aires, Argentina.
On the other hand, there are people who are not capable of taming their palates to the drink’s bitterness, “The first time I tried it was in 2001. They asked me if I knew what it was, and obviously, having grown up outside of Argentina I had no clue what they were talking about, so they treated me one. We made a toss, and drank the first gulp. The first reaction was of total rejection, the taste was less bitter than what I expected…but I did not like it at all, although I still drank it. It was an unpleasant experience in my case… and since that day I never ordered a Fernet. I have tried it in other occasions, with friends and family, but I have not been able to loose that taste that it left me the first time,” Johnny, international commerce, Venezuela-Argentina, currently in, Buenos Aires, Argentina.
“I hate Fernet. Not long ago I drank a glass thinking it was soda and when I tasted it in my mouth I almost felt sick. It is too bitter for me, even when I mix it with soda, it still has that disgusting syrup taste. It displeases me so much that when my husband, fan of Fernet-with-Coke, is drinking it, I avoid him so I don’t have to smell it or taste it. But I would be unfair if I say it does not move the masses,” Cecilia, journalist, Avellaneda, Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Despite the love-hate relationship generated by this drink, its popularity continues to expand across the globe. Nowadays its popularity is rapidly spreading in Venezuela, where it is also used as a medicine as in its origins.
A little while back, a Venezuelan friend who lives in Argentina wrote to me about a curious fact I was unaware of: “Early July one of my best friends from Venezuela came to visit me in Argentina. He asked me about Fernet, since apparently, it is gaining adepts in Venezuela. In fact, in my recent visit to Venezuela I confirmed that you can find Fernet-Branca in various liquor stores. I found it curious, and when I asked my friends there, most of them knew the drink…and more than one of them loved it… They even use it to relieve stomachaches…it is incredible since when my dad was small, they used to give you a shot to cure stomach aches… HOLY REMEDY!!!”
Fernet, once a bitter medicine that today generates clashing, but indisputable passions.
What does Fernet mean to you?