It’s polo season—and those of you attending matches at the Greenwich Polo Club have probably noticed this summer’s new addition: the Branca Bar. Fernet-Branca, due to player request (more on that in a moment), is a sponsor this season, and you can sample it—straight or in a cocktail—in the new bar, located underneath the grandstand boxes on the west side of the field.
The so-called “sport of kings” is most typically associated with Champagne in the U.S. But in Argentina, the de facto epicenter of the sport (most of the world’s top players hail from that country), the national drink is the Fernandito: Fernet-Branca mixed with cola. In fact, Fernet-Branca is so popular in Argentina that a distillery was built in Buenos Aires to supply South America; it’s the only country besides Italy where Fernet-Branca is currently produced. (All the Fernet-Branca you’ll get in the United States, however, is produced at the original plant in Milan, where the distillery takes up a full city block.)
Polo and Fernet-Branca could be considered Argentina’s two favorite things, so it makes sense that polo aficionados Stateside should be sipping the spirit at matches, too.
For those not yet familiar with it, fernets are a category of amari, or bitter herbal liqueurs. Fernet-Branca is a brand of fernet. It dominates the category, though—so much so that it has become nearly synonymous with it. It’s such a recognizable name that it’s like saying Velcro for hook-and-loop closures or Kleenex for facial tissue. It’s also so popular among drinks-industry workers that it’s often called the “bartenders’ handshake.” Fernet-Branca is made with 27 herbs, roots, and spices, and spends at least 12 months aging in Croatian oak barrels. The recipe is a closely guarded secret—although a fun fact is that the company uses 75% of the world’s saffron output. It was originally created in 1845 as a medicinal tonic intended to be used as a cholera remedy, and its recipe is essentially unchanged since that time.
But how did Fernet-Branca get to Greenwich? By player request. One of the mixologists who mans the club’s Pony Bar happened to mention it to the polo players, and by all reports they were eagerly clamoring after it. The spirit was even drunk from a championship trophy by a 7-goal handicap player, Tomas Garcia Del Rio, following last year’s Shreve, Crump & Low Cup.
We caught up with Edoardo Branca—the scion of the famed family and the sixth generation to head up the company—at this summer’s first match to find out more.The Fernet-Branca sponsorship of the Greenwich Polo Club came about to support the players and also to give back to the community, following the opening of Branca USA in New York City earlier this year.
“There are a lot of Argentinians here playing polo, so we want to support them. And given how much they love Fernet-Branca, I think giving them a bottle was a good idea.
“And as a family policy, we’ve always given back to the city where we’re located. We always want to be really in touch with the community. To be involved not just as a sponsor but also to let people have a free drink and enjoy a fernet neat or in a cocktail, was something that was very important to me.”
Fernet-Branca first became popular in Argentina in the early ‘90s, when Edoardo’s father ran promotions outside of nightclubs there.
“In the early ‘90s, my father was in charge of the Argentinian market. Cocktails were not yet big there, and he started to put stands outside of nightclubs to let customers try Fernet and Coke because the clubs wouldn’t allow him to do it inside. At one point, people were standing outside the club the whole night because they could drink Fernet and Coke instead of going inside. Word of mouth came out and more and more people began to know the Fernet and drink it more.”
Fernet-Branca tastes very bitter, so it’s common not to like it the first time you try it. But the flavor will likely grow on you.
“Many bartenders tell me, ‘I was a barback, and at the end of my shift on my first day, my colleagues poured me a shot of Fernet-Branca. I drank it, and I felt like that was a very harsh way to tell me that I was fired. But it grew on me.’ I think that’s the fun thing about Fernet-Branca: Everybody has a story about the first time they tried it. It’s something that sticks with you for the rest of your life. And once you get used to the flavor profile, the herbs, the spices, having no sugar inside, you really enjoy it and you become part of a family, part of something different. That’s what I like about Fernet-Branca, that flavor profile that’s a little more complex.”
Fernet-Branca is perhaps a natural fit in Argentina because the Argentine palate is already accustomed to bitter flavors.
“I think Argentinians have an advantage over most people because they drink a tea that’s called mate, and it’s very bitter. When you grow up having a palate that is already used to bitter things, the passage to arrive to Fernet-Branca is easier. A lot of the younger crowd there loves and enjoys Fernet-Branca immediately.”
Bottles of Fernet-Branca often taste slightly different from one batch to the next.
“You can have two batches of Fernet-Branca that taste very different. The reason is, maybe one year you had more rain in Iran, so the saffron was stronger. Or you have chamomile from Italy and not from Argentina. That’s the beauty of working with herbs and spices. I think it’s unique and beautiful to have a spirit where small changes affect the flavor of a bottle.
“I’ve often been asked what I see in a glass. A lot of the time, when I look at a glass of Fernet-Branca, I see nature working: the rain, the seasons that you have inside, that wood that we age. I see a process that takes between 16 and 19 months, including the gathering of the herbs. And then before that, it took a year to grow those plants. So I think when you have thousands of people working on that single glass that you’re sipping, and in one glass you have four seasons, people working, gathering everything to create this product, it’s something really unique and for me it’s a poem in the drink.”