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What’s a bitter Italian spirit doing in every bar and kitchen cabinet across Argentina? And why’s a beverage that tastes of liquorice mouthwash toppling Malbec, Argentina’s iconic drink, off its perch?

Fernet BrancaMy husband says Fernet wasn’t popular at all when he was growing up. He moved away from Argentina and when he came back over a decade later, everyone seemed to have taken up the Fernet habit. Now the bottles of coke on the table at parties aren’t for the designated drivers, they’re Fernet’s accompaniment. According to a 2014 report from Abeceb, while wine sales are dipping, consumption of Fernet is rising – Argentines sip an average of 1.5 litres of Fernet a year (Buenos Aires Herald).

Fernet originated in Italy in the 1800s. The Italian influence in Argentina is strong, particularly when it comes to food and drink, due to waves of immigration from the European nation. Pizza, pasta, milanesas and ice cream are on the menu at practically every Argentine eating establishment.

Fernet made in ArgentinaQuite why this particular Italian icon has become so popular is another matter. Its recipe is a closely guarded secret but there are rumoured to be cinnamon, chamomile, saffron, rhubarb, gentian root, and galangal floating about in that green and black bottle – not traditionally the ingredients of a much-loved spirit. Some say Fernet built a following when students boycotted British whiskey during the Malvinas/Falklands War. Others claim Fernet increased in popularity during a cocktail-mixing craze in the 80s.

I inherited a bottle of Fernet from my parents when they were visiting us in Buenos Aires. Mum and dad bought a bottle of Fernet Branca – the most popular brand by far – expecting to enjoy a relaxing aperitif on the balcony. It is still almost full.

Most popular Argentine spirit “Are you supposed to drink it with something?” my parents queried. Yes. The classic drink is Fernet con coca – Fernet and coke. The “Fernandito” originated in Cordoba in the 90s and is now ordered en masse in clubs and bars, and mixed by the gallon at asados and parties. How much coke? Experiment; it’s not an exact science (that’s my opinion – others disagree. The Fernet Branca website says 1/5 Fernet and 4/5 coke.) And remember to serve it on the rocks. You could try a dash of Fernet in your coffee or drink it with soda water. It’s not bad, but it still tastes of tree bark and cough medicine.

For me, Fernet will never get close to Argentina’s Malbec. But Fernet is decidedly an acquired taste. Keep drinking it, fans say, and pretty soon you won’t be able to get enough of it.