Italy figures heavily in Argentina's history. There are many instances of things that can be traced back to Italy. One of those is Argentina's unofficial national cocktail, a Fernando or Fernandito, "Fernet con cola" (Fernando 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 Branca. He concocted a fictional character in 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 trendy and soon afterward 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 1800s, Italians emigrated to other countries. The Italian government 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 exported so much Fernet to Argentina 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 older person's drink. It's still thought of this way in Italy, and in Argentina, it met the same fate.
Around the end of the '70s, the modern drink was invented outside of the amateur soccer games played in Cordoba's outskirts. It was common practice for the players to quench their thirst after a game with various 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 Fernet bottle. 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 the 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 Argentina was consuming the most Fernet per capita in no time 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, 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 Fernet:
For our tours, we like to ease our guests into the Fernandito. Fernet's taste is robust, 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 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!