Italy figures heavily in Argentina's history. There are many instances of things that can be traced back to Italy and one of those is Argentina's unofficial national cocktail, a Fernando or Fernandito, which is "Fernet con cola" (Fernet with Coke). This is now cemented as a national symbol and cultural icon. Locals are very passionate about this drink and it goes hand in hand with asados. If you don't believe me, I have a song for you that backs me up!
Let's start way back in 1845 Milan for a little background. Bernardino Branca was trying to create a "medicinal" product to treat cholera and his secret sauce of 27 herbs and spices from around the world was born and christened, Fernet. He concocted a fictional character in the form of Dr. Fernet Svedese from Sweden to give it more medicinal credibility. He actually was supplying a hospital that used it to treat cholera patients. Obviously, it wasn't a cure, but it did help ease the pain. Remember, it was still common to bled-let people during these times so this must have been a step up.
It quickly became very popular and soon afterwards was used to "alleviate" all kinds of maladies like stomach aches, virility aid for men, bloating, constipation, menstrual discomforts, and hysteria in women.
In the mid to late 1800's Italians emigrate to other countries and the Italian government themselves would pass out flyers at the docks reminding everyone that it was their patriotic duty to ask for and demand Italian made products in their new home countries. Many Italians went to Brazil and Argentina and as a result both countries currently have large Italian communities.
By 1925, Argentina was importing so much Fernet that they gave a local company a license to produce it. Currently, there are only two countries in the world that produce Fernet: Italy and Argentina. Eventually, they set up their own distillery in 1941.
Historically, it's been consumed as a digestif and it was considered mostly an old person's drink. In Italy it's still thought of this way and in Argentina it met the same fate.
Around the end of the 70's the drink was invented outside of the amateur soccer games that were being played in the outskirts of Cordoba. It was common practice for the players to quench their thirsts after a game with a variety of mixed "cocktails". They would mix anything really. It was common for them to mix beer and wine called a "fifty-fifty"; Vermouth with lemon-lime soda; beer with orange soda, etc. One day, one of the shop owners ran out of all other alcohol and was left with a bottle of Fernet. He figured these guys were drinking all kinds of things anyway so why not give it a go with Coke? It was an immediate grass-roots hit with that local community. Given what they were already drinking I'm not at all surprised this was a hit. Since it was so difficult to find a Fernet, fanatics would always carry around their own bottles and the popularity started to grow by word of mouth.
Fernet Branca got wind of this growing fan base and decided to start a marketing campaign to make this go national and national it went. This was such a huge hit that in no time Argentina was consuming the most Fernet per capita than any other country.
They are so fanatical about this that there is a movement to declare the drink an intangible cultural heritage for Cordoba. There are also songs about this drink. This song, featured below, celebrates the combination of Fernet and Asados:
There are specific ways of serving the drink and the types of vessels to drink it from. For example, the Rosario method is to have 1 part Fernet with 9 parts Coke. The Cordoba style calls for 3 parts Fernet with 7 parts Coke. Young people still like to make "Viajeros" (Travelers) by cutting a big plastic Coke bottle and making the drink there and passing it around. You can see this way of drinking it in the next video titled, The Coke is for the Fernet:
For our tours, we like to ease our guests into the Fernandito. The taste of Fernet is very strong, herbal, and bitter and you don't have to imagine too hard that this was created as a medicinal product. Many people who try it the first time just hate it (I did) but then grow to love it (Yep, me too).
So we like to add a lemon wedge to it and the combination is perfect. My visitors can try it without the lemon first to get the original taste, but then just about everyone squeezes that lemon wedge into their drink and finishes it off. The purist around me frown upon my modification, but I'm trying to get people to like their first time, not get totally turned off by it. Think of the lemon as a gateway drug.
By the way, we serve it with a "picada" of dry aged salami from Tandil, some local cheese and pickles (usually from Germany). We then cheer, always remembering to look each other in the eye as we clink our glasses, or it's 7 years of bad sex for you!