Fernet: The Best Liquor You're (Still) Not Yet Drinking

A bitter beverage beloved in Argentina as a hangover cure is slowly and steadily gaining in popularity in the U.S., and with good reason.

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In Argentina, fernet is the liquor for all occasions. Grandparents swear by the herbal libation; the young heading out into the night mix fernet with cola and then order it en masse at bars and clubs; and no one would dare organize a barbecue, which are called asados in Argentina and are very regular affairs with friends or families, without fernet. It even earned a theme song in the '90s: "Fernet con cola," about the bona fide national beverage by Argentine rock band Vilma Palma e Vampiros.

Argentina downs more fernet than any other country, though the bitter originated in Italy, a country where more than half of Argentines claim ancestry, way back in the mid-1800s. As universally popular as fernet is in Argentina, it is still relatively unknown in the United States. It pops up here and there; Bill Cosby mentioned the liquor in a bit he performed and it has appeared in The Sopranos scenes. In recent years in the U.S. people have been talking about and tasting the liquor more, especially out west in San Francisco, and the beverage's popularity, or at least awareness for it, has grown steadily. Fernet enjoys a storied past in San Francisco, too. During Prohibition, San Franciscans could legally imbibe fernet. It was permitted on the grounds that it was "medicinal."

The truth is, few people actually know the concoction's exact ingredients, because fernet recipes are kept secret.

For the first-time fernet drinker, the popularity of booze that tastes like black licorice devoid of sugar might be confounding. The botanical, 80-proof fernet is no innocuous vodka. It is made from bitters and herbs, and though it goes down relatively smooth, the aftertaste kicks and lingers. It is, as almost everyone describes it, an acquired taste. "I have never met any foreigner (in Argentina) who has liked fernet at first taste," says Teddy Epstein. Epstein, originally from the U.S., is a co-owner of Magdalena's Party, a bar in the Palermo Soho neighborhood of Buenos Aires that attracts a mix of foreigners and Argentines. He professes to now love fernet, but estimates it takes about nine admirable tries for the unaccustomed palate to get to that point. Still, for many in Argentina it's the liquor of choice, and the majority of the population drinks it regularly. No one in Argentina feels bad about drinking it, either, because grandma has always said it is good for you. Moreover, no one feels bad the day after drinking it -- even a lot of it -- because everyone claims fernet consumption comes hangover-free. In fact, people often cite it as a hangover cure.

The truth is, few people actually know the concoction's exact ingredients, because fernet recipes are kept secret. The Italian Fernet-Branca is the most popular brand, and its producers are clandestine about what goes into it. Some of the ingredients are easily deduced upon tasting it, though. The base is made from grapes, it includes generous helpings of the antioxidant saffron, as well as some rhubarb, chamomile, and ginseng. With the rumored herb count somewhere between 20 to upwards of 40, much more goes into fernet, and other conjectured ingredients include peppermint oil, sage, bay leaves, gentian root, and even St. John's wort. Additionally, each brand has its own special recipe. The combination of herbs, whatever they all are, settles the stomach and aids digestion. Originally, people drank the liquor to cleanse the system, sipping it following dinner.

The German liquor Jäegermeister could be considered a close relative to fernet. In fact, people often describe fernet as tasting like a far less saccharine Jäegermeister. Jäegermeister liquor has almost become a joke, though, with certain subcultures appropriating it for "Jäegerbombs," or a shot of the liquor dropped into Red Bull and chugged. Jäegermeister came into favor in the U.S. about 15 years ago, and the spot is open for a new brand of bitter from overseas. Insiders like bartenders and restaurant staff already are clued into and enjoy fernet, now it is just a matter of time before everyone else acquires the taste.

Image: Different brands of fernet/Wikimedia Commons.

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Karina Martinez-Carter is a freelance journalist living in Buenos Aires. She writes regularly for BBC Travel and has contributed to Forbes Travel Guide, Bloomberg BusinessweekTravel+Leisure and The Week.

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