In Defense of Soda Done Properly

henry apr15 cocacola.jpg

Photo by tharso/Flickr CC

Soft drinks are getting a bad rap these days (and perhaps well they should), so I thought I'd take a moment in their defense and talk about how Coca Cola has become a part of our everyday lives here in Argentina.

I don't really like soft drinks. They can be too sweet, and, as the critics note in the links above, they are in many ways unfulfilling. I don't care for high-fructose corn syrup, either, but here in Argentina, Coke is made with real sugar (most of it, anyways--you have to check each bottle to make sure), which gives it a much brighter taste (hunt around your local Latino market and you may find some, or just wait until Passover).

Coke makes up two thirds of Argentina's "national cocktail."

For some reason, a small glass of the sweet stuff with a lemon wedge (perfect to balance out the sweetness, and much preferable to a lime) is the perfect thing to go along with my usual avocado, basil, and roasted red pepper sandwich at lunch.

Or we enjoy it after a long ride on the Buenos Aires subway, when water cannot give the same satisfaction as a cold Coca Cola in a real glass bottle. I'm sure there's some nostalgic or Pavlovian element to this, caused by a youth full of commercials like these:

More importantly, Coke makes up two-thirds of Argentina's "national cocktail," if you will, the Fernet & Coke. This is a drink you can get anywhere, from the trendy bars of Palermo to your seat on the bus to Iguazu. We already know the Coke part, but what exactly is that other third, the Fernet?

It's full name is Fernet Branca, and it's an Italian bitters made from a variety of 40 herbs and spices (take that, Colonel!), including cardamom, saffron, and chamomile. Bitters are typically used in minute amounts in classic cocktails like the Manhattan, but in Argentina this tradition has been discarded in favor of having the bitters front-and-center. Fernet is biting stuff on its own--imagine drinking four ounces of Angostura straight and you get the idea--but blended with Coca Cola (recipe below) it becomes a wonderful tug-of-war cocktail: each sip hits you first with a wallop of bitterness up front, then a softer blow of those herbs and spices, and finally, the sweet finish of the cola.

I have to wonder what a mixologist like Todd Thrasher or Derek Brown would do with it. It's by no means a subtle base to start with, but I bet with a house-made cola and different combinations of bitters they would come up with something good.

Either way, it's a surprising and welcome addition to my cocktail lineup. If you enjoy bitters, give it a try:

Fernet Y Coca Cola

• 1 part Fernet Branca
    • 2 parts Coca Cola

Put a few ice cubes in a tall glass (or use one large ice cube if possible), and alternate pouring the Fernet and Coke into the glass (tilt the glass to preserve the Coke's carbonation). No stirring allowed.