90, 2, 10. A nod and a couple of numbers, that’s how it's ordered in the heartland of Fernet - Cordoba, Argentina. Ninety percent Fernet, two cubes of ice, and ten percent Coca Cola; a blend euphemistically described as a rocket to the brain, not to be taken lightly by newcomers to this feisty spirit.
Fernet is an Italian amari or bitter, drunk as a digestif in Italy where it was invented in the mid-eighteenth century as a cure-all tonic. Traditionally it’s made by infusing a grain spirit with a secret list of roots, herbs, and spices that range from the exotic (saffron, aloe, cardamom) to the biblical (myrrh), adding a caramel sweetener (although it sure doesn’t seem like it), and then storing it in huge wooden casks while the flavors blend and the liquid takes on its distinctive murkiness.
Fernet was originally brought over by Italian immigrants to fortify themselves against seasickness and the raft of new stomach ailments awaiting them in the new world. Over time, it grew in popularity, perhaps due to its sheer alcoholic potency at a low price, but mostly because of its emergence in the early 1900s cocktail scene.
It wasn’t until the 80s, with the Cordoba Fernet and coke explosion, that Fernet spread to every corner of the country, helped in no small part by a massive publicity campaign run by then and current market leader, Branca. Since then, consumption has peaked to around 20 million liters per year – thirty percent of which happens to be in the land of the 90, 2, 10.
Now, with more than a dozen different brands ranging in price, from the premium Fernet Branca and the proudly made-in-Cordoba 1812 all the way down to the pre-mixed Chabona, which goes for less than a dollar a liter and has the tagline, “pega mas” (it hits harder), it's a rare get-together in Argentina that doesn’t have Fernet.
A quieter revival is happening, this time of classic Fernet cocktails, arguably the best way to enjoy the real herbal flavor. And for classic cocktails there is no better man for the job in this city than Sebastian Garcia, a true gentleman bartender and head of the bar at Frank's, the Buenos Aires speakeasy and cocktail bar that was recently listed as the best bar in South America and number thirty-seven in the Best Bars of the World.
TLK: How did you get involved in bartending?
I started studying with a bartender named Pablo Muñoz, who at that time was 70 years old and taught from his garage. He introduced me to elegant and dedicated mixology. At that time there were courses for barman, but mostly aimed at young people keen to toss bottles around. Pablo showed me that the art and the ability to surprise was in other details.
TLK: Tell us about Fernet in Argentina.
Fernet is a very widely consumed drink here, so closely linked to tradition that these days I would say it's completely embedded in our culture.
TLK: How would you describe the flavor of Fernet?
A mix of bitter and sweet with an astringent finish that invites you to keep drinking!
TLK: If Fernet were music, was song would it be?
For me, it would be a chacarera (a rural counterpoint to the tango from the cities) or a tune from Argentine folk music. I remember as a child when my grandmother lit the fire to for the barbecue there was always an aperitif next to the grill and chamamé in the background!
TLK: Your favorite moment to drink a Fernet?
The best time to drink a Fernet is when I need to relax, or as a friend would say: when I need to stop the world so I can get off!