What do you get when you combine a storied Italian hangover remedy and a beloved American cure-all?
Argentina’s go-to cocktail, but of course.
Sometimes referred to as a Fernando or a Fernandito, Fernet con Coca is made by mixing the amaro Fernet-Branca with Coca-Cola, serving it tall over ice. I’ll be the first to admit that the Argentinean tipple is an acquired taste (it’s at once bitter, sweet, minty, and herbaceous). But with the holidays in full swing, the drink holds a special place in my heart as the quintessential hair-of-the-dog cocktail.
The concept of “hair of the dog” hails back to medieval Europe, when a therapy for rabies was to place some literal hairs from the rabid dog onto the victim's bite wound, assuming that a little bit of what ailed them would also be what ultimately cured them. Along the way, this concept was applied to hangovers, with proponents claiming that a little bit of booze the morning after a night of drinking would clear your pounding head and achy body. Science states otherwise (alcohol is dehydrating, so by drinking more the next morning, you’re just prolonging the agony), but as someone who has woken up foggy-headed the morning after a night of holiday merriment, I’ll attest that a little nip or two alongside a hearty brunch often helps bring me back to life.
The canon of hair-of-the-dog cocktails is dominated by juice-forward drinks: the mimosa, the screwdriver, the Bloody Mary, the greyhound, the Bellini. They all have their merits and can be lovely as the clock strikes 11 a.m., but they aren’t really the type of drinks that are the true source of a hangover. What I love about Fernet con Coca as a hair-of-the-dog drink is that it’s both the cocktail you’d knock back at night as well as something you’d want to consume come morning.
Fernet-Branca has long been hailed as a cure for, well, almost every ailment from cholera to indigestion. Its recipe is a well-kept secret, containing a proprietary blend of 27 herbs, among them chamomile, rhubarb, cinnamon, iris, saffron, zedoary, and myrrh. Coca-Cola, itself prepared from a highly guarded secret recipe, has been dubbed “the red ambulance” for its ability to cure nausea, stomach pains, and everything in between. So it’s only natural that these two liquid cure-alls would combine to form a powerful hangover remedy.
Fernet con Coca’s history, however, dates way back to 1870, when the Italian amaro company Societa Fratelli Branca decided to send a young employee to Buenos Aires. He was tasked with promoting the product overseas and establishing a market in Argentina, which was seeing a growing influx of Italian immigrants.
Then in 1925, Hofer & Co., a company based in Buenos Aires that had sole authorization to sell Fernet-Branca in Argentina, was permitted to make Fernet-Branca using extract sent from Italy. A factory was established in Buenos Aires to meet the growing demand, and then in 1940 Fratelli Branca bought the factory from Hofer & Co. and began to operate in the South American market directly. Today, Argentina is the only country outside of Italy where Fernet-Branca is made, and the country consumes 75% of all Fernet-Branca produced worldwide.
But how exactly did Coca-Cola meet its match with Fernet?
Up until about 30 years ago, Fernet-Branca was consumed in Argentina primarily as a digestif. Yet, as with the rise of any culinary trend, advertising and youth culture played a large part in driving Fernet con Coca’s success. While pinpointing the exact origin of the cocktail is somewhat shrouded in mythmaking, it’s agreed that it's heavily associated with the university town of Córdoba. As the story goes, in Córdoba, students, sports game attendees, and concert-goers would cut off the tops of plastic Coca-Cola bottles and add in Fernet-Branca for communal drinking. At around the same time, Fernet-Branca and Coca-Cola launched a coordinated ad campaign that promoted pairing the bitter liqueur with soda, creating an innovative beverage that was at once unifying and unique. From Córdoba, the drink spread to Buenos Aires and quickly became cemented as part of Argentinean food and drink culture.
The perfect proportions of Fernet con Coca are hotly debated, which means it’s really a choose-your-own adventure cocktail. I’m partial to making the drink with two ounces Fernet-Branca to six ounces Coca-Cola, which lets the sweetness of the soda cut through the assertive, menthol-y flavor of the Fernet.
If you’ve never had Fernet before, though, you may want to start with a full glass of soda and just a tiny splash of the herbal liqueur. Or if you’re feeling particularly brave (or for that post-office holiday party morning when even your hangover has a hangover), you can opt for what Argentineans call the “90210” cocktail—90% Fernet, two ice cubes and 10% Coca-Cola. Just be forewarned: It tastes nothing like the sweet, sunny warmth of Beverly Hills.
Fernet con Coca
60 ml (2 fl oz) Fernet-Branca
180 ml (6 fl oz) Coca-Cola
Fill a highball glass with ice and top with the Fernet-Branca. Add the Coca-Cola and stir to combine.
Lauren Shockey is a New York City-based food writer and author of the cookbook Hangover Helper as well as the culinary memoir Four Kitchens. Previously the restaurant critic at the Village Voice, she has written for such publications as The New York Times, Travel + Leisure and the Wall Street Journal.