How Fernet Became Argentina’s Favorite Bitter
The largest and most famous producer of the bitter Fernet is Fratelli Branca, based in Milan, Italy and the family operates factories in both Italy and Argentina. It was originally developed in 1845 to fight cholera, but its use and production have changed dramatically over the years.
During the early twentieth century over a million Italians immigrated to Argentina and brought with them their fondness for the amaro. At that time it was primarily drunk by older men after meals as a digestif. Until a couple decades ago Fernet had a relatively low consumption in Argentina. During the Falkland Islands conflict with Britain in 1982, university students in Córdoba began boycotting British whiskey and drinking Fernet in protest. Additionally, a change in marketing catalyzed the popularity of mixing Fernet with Coca-Cola and it quickly became the drink of choice by young men and women at parties, bars, and clubs.
Today the majority of Fernet produced and consumed globally is in Argentina. After wine and beer it is the most popular alcoholic beverage in the country, with 40 million liters being consumed domestically in 2015 alone. Outside of Argentina and Italy it is still relatively unheard of, however, in recent years it has gained popularity in trendier circles in the United States, especially San Francisco and New York, where it is consumed more as a cocktail similar to whisky or cognac.
What is Fernet?
The biggest mystery of Fernet is what ingredients go into it, which is a large part of the myth and draw of the product. Common descriptors of the flavor include black licorice, herbal, bitter, and medicinal. Fratelli Branca’s Fernet, Fernet Branca, is uniquely made up of all natural ingredients and this has led to the debatable claim that it is impossible to get a hangover from it. The exact ingredients are a closely held secret, and according to Hernan Mutti, Product Manager of Fratelli Branca, their product is impossible to be replicated even though dozens of competitors have attempted, but have largely failed to gain market share. Argentines are so loyal to Fernet Branca that one would likely get strange looks if you brought another brand to a party.
The story goes that more than 40 herbs, plants, and spices are used to make Fernet, and common guesses of ingredients include saffron, rhubarb, artichoke, myrrh, and even ground woods. Long before globalization took off, the Branca brothers traveled the world buying rare spices and ingredients and had them shipped back to their native Italy. Recently, with growing demand, Fratelli Branca has faced a dilemma with their production. Many ingredients that go into Fernet are not available locally and need to be sourced from around the world, primarily the Middle East and Asia. Fratelli Branca has been insistent that the flavor and quality remain consistent, despite facing increasing demand, as well as political instability and natural disasters in several of the countries that supply the ingredients. Unlike many of their competitors, they have chosen not to use artificial flavorings and coloring in their product.
Argentina’s Fernet Factory
A visit and tour to the Fernet factory in Argentina reveals an interesting combination of artisanal workshop and a modern commercial factory. Fernet Branca is made in a series of steps, each having been refined over time. The first room in the factory contains several large vats with enormous wooden spoons for slowly making caramel. Three carmeleros carefully watch and stir the melting sugar until it reaches the perfect consistency and color, a skill known only to these three from years of experience. Next there are large tanks emitting floral aromas, which Mutti likens to large cups of tea. Various flowers and herbs are put into the tanks of warm water to seep their flavors.
A contrast is seen in the main production area. The liquid goes to a bank of shining stainless steel mixers and tanks, and the large, sophisticated commercial scale of production becomes evident. During the entire factory tour, no raw ingredients are visible but each tank emits a unique aroma, some faintly recognizable such as cinnamon. Under the production area is the largest commercial cellar in South America. Over 200 French oak barrels store upwards of 20,000 liters of Fernet each for 12-14 months. Despite the massive volume of Fernet in the barrels, the room maintains a distinct old-world artisanal feel with the dimly lighted dark wood barrels seeping small amounts of aging dark brown Fernet, resembling sap dripping from a tree. The factory’s bottling facility can produce up to 30,000 bottles per hour with very little human oversight and has received multiple international quality certifications, in juxtaposition to the three men stirring caramel on the opposite side of the wall.