Being from Georgia, I have been to the World of Coke in Atlanta on multiple occasions, and featured there is this room where you can taste sodas that Coca-Cola sells around the world. Some of them taste absolutely terrible to me – too sweet, too bitter, too weird – but Coke wouldn’t offer them if they didn’t sell. We all have different tastes, I suppose.
This brings us to Fernet Branca. If I weren’t married to Kevin, I don’t know that I would ever have tried this Italian liqueur. It smells like medicine and looks like poison – like iodine, to be exact – so my instinct would never have been to put it in my body. When you first taste it, Socrates drinking hemlock comes to mind. But here in Argentina, bottles of various brands of Fernet make up a whole wall in the grocery store and Fernet con coca (Fernet and coke) is the mixed drink of choice – they wouldn’t sell it if people weren’t buying, right? – so with the goading of my husband, I tried it.
Up front, you get the syrupy feel, and then the numbing of the tongue and fire up the nose. And then, the whopping, complex flavor takes over the palate. It’s like a disturbing, classic novel, subtly weaving diverse, somewhat uncomfortable pieces into one coherent theme. If you can, imagine a whole herb garden roasting over cedar coals – mint, cardamom, thyme, capers, rhubarb, allspice, anise – and then drink the scent. It has a long taste. Even a minute after a sip, the taste of earthy evergreen lingers. Also, like a classic novel, when it’s finished, it’s so satisfying.
Curious about this strange brew, I did some research and found that Fernet tastes complex because it is: different accounts list saffron, gentian root, myrrh, aloe, chamomile, sage, cloves, mint, allspice, and as many as 40 others as ingredients. The true recipe of Fernet Branca, however, is secret (a not-secret DIY version here). Less secret are the various ways Fernet is served. In Italy, it is served after a meal as a digestive aid, and also in espresso, either in the morning or the afternoon. In Germany, I read it’s served mixed with Red Bull, which is a sensation I never wish to experience. San Francisco accounts for a quarter of Fernet consumption in the U.S., and there it is often served as a shot with a ginger ale chaser. And here in Argentina, as I mentioned, the national cocktail is Fernet and coke. Something about the mix creates a thick head on top of the drink – like a Guiness, and just as opaque.
As rumored, it really does settle the stomach after a meal. I’m a long-time antacid user (because I love those spicy things!), but I think this actually works faster than Tums. It’s also rumored to be a great hangover cure, and while I can’t vouch for this from experience, I don’t doubt it. All you need is a sip to be very, very awake.