Out of the blue during the last couple of weeks I’ve been asked about specifically Argentine liquors, liqueurs, spirits, etc. Something outside the wine world. It’s a topic that I’ve thought about in the past and was always planning to write something up on, but just never got around to it. So, now I am.
The immediate response from most people I talk to tends to be related to one of two spirits – Fernet Branca and/or Gancia. The thing is though, neither of those is Argentine. They may easily be the most consumed here, but they’re both Italian spirits that have been adopted by Argentine popular culture. Yes, they’re produced and bottled here, under license, but they’re not uniquely Argentine. Some might argue that the version of Gancia, the Americano, is unique to these shores, but it’s not, it’s produced in Italy as well, and was before it was produced here. The same holds true for a few others that pop up now and again, like Cynar or Campari. Not Argentine.
But, there are four that I know of that are pertinent to the conversation as, to the best of my knowledge, they were created here. Admittedly, they’re not wildly popular. Now and again I see them used in a cocktail. Rodolfo Reich, in his excellent Mixology in Argentina only mentions one of them, which I found strange at the time and wish he’d delved into them a bit more, or at least given them a sidebar.
This apertif has a lot of history behind it, and is tied very closely into Argentine culture. It was created by an expat from the U.S., Melville Sewell Bagley (I didn’t name him) in 1864. A native of Maine he moved first to New Orleans where he became involved in the dry goods business, and then on to Buenos Aires. In 1861, at age 23, he migrated to Argentina, basically to avoid being caught up in the Civil War in the U.S. Casting about for various opportunities to make a living, he stumbled on one that was to launch an interesting chapter in Argentine history. Bitter oranges were common throughout the city of Buenos Aires, basically as ornamental trees. However, the fruit was also added to various refreshing beverages, leaving behind what some describe as “mountains” of bitter orange peels. (I’d question the accuracy of the quantity, given that at the time BA had a mere 140,000 residents.
A campaign had been launched offering a prize of some sort for anyone who could come up with a use for the peels and Bagley decided to create a triple sec style liqueur. After much experimentation he came up with one and launched a pre-introduction advertising campaign for his “stomach digestive” that built anticipation for it. It was a near immediate success and spawned numerous imitations. Realizing that he could lose out on his market share, he petitioned the Argentine government to create a trademark and patent office, something that didn’t yet exist in the country, and some twelve years later, in October of 1876, his efforts came to fruition with the creation of the office, and along with it, Trademark #1 issued to Hesperidina.
The color of the liqueur is a very faintly orangeish yellow, fairly light in color. On the nose I immediately smell the scent of fresh oranges, tinged with a touch of something slightly minty. Tasting it, there’s an immediate hit of bitter orange. The alcohol is very upfront with a touch of a burn. There’s a fair amount of sweetness verging on light caramel. And, there are definitely herbs and spices in the mix that make it quite different from other orange liqueurs I’ve tried – to me I taste cinnamon and something in the mint family, perhaps the local hierba buena. It’s delicious on its own and makes a great mixer.
Named after famed jockey Irineo Leguizamo, Legui, or Caña Legui, was introduced in the early 1920s in San Juan, Argentina, if my research is correct – there seems to be limited information about its history. Today it is produced by Campari Argentina, SA (whose website, interestingly, after you enter your required birthdate to prove you’re of legal age, simply reroutes you to their publicly available Facebook page). I wish I could write a story as interesting as the one above for this licor, but simply haven’t found any interesting history about it. It is made from sugar cane and herbs.
The color is like pale brass. Its aroma and flavor are something truly unique. Someone described it as reminding them of cream soda which is a perfect descriptor. It really does smell and taste like an alcoholic version of cream soda – i.e.,, vanilla, cream and lime juice providing the primary flavorings. Whether those are what are actually used in flavoring it I don’t know, but if not, the combination works. For me it’s a little too sweet to drink on its own, but it does make a great mixer.
I have to admit I hadn’t tried this one until this little write-up. I’ve only even seen bottles here and there, and a few folk had described it as being a local substitute for Fernet, which didn’t exactly lead me to want to run out and try it. Even the label on the bottle recommends drinking it with cola (or with soda or water). It’s an amargo, a digestif, made for drinking after dinner rather than prior, at least traditionally. The ingredients listed on the bottle are simply water, alcohol, sugar, “an infusion of vegetable substances”, iron citrate and quinine sulfate. Yum….
It’s got a very dark brown color, nearly impenetrable – holding it up to the light barely yields a glimmer shining through. Smelling it I get an intense whiff of what smells like vegetable ash and burnt caramel, not particularly endearing. And I have to say, on the palate, there’s nothing about it that makes me ever want to put it in my mouth again. It tastes like burnt vegetables that have been scraped off the bottom of a pan left over the burner for hours, topped with burnt caramel and a hit of something vaguely alcoholic. It’s mouth-puckering-ly bitter and leaves an aftertaste that makes me want to lick a sweaty gym shoe just for relief (and keep in mind, I like things like marmite and vegemite). I’m truly not sure cola could save it and I’m not looking to try. Argentine friends – any help here?
Though touted as an apertif, for me this one is more of a digestif, falling a bit more into the amargo category than what I think of as a pre-dinner libation. I suppose it’s being offered up as a sort of vermouth or campari alternative and it does work well that way. Created around the end of the 19th century it’s based on a formula that lists nothing more than more of those vegetable substances along with caramel, water, sugar and alcohol. A bit of research says that it includes various citrus peels along with a hit of the aforementioned iron citrate and quinine sulfate.
The color is a deep reddish brown. On the nose it does remind me of sweet vermouth, with that quinine aroma, but also what to me smells like sweet red fruits, something almost cassis-like. It’s sweet, but balanced with a nice amount of quinine bitterness, and indeed has a citrusy quality on the palate. I still get something fruity and red in the background though less pronounced on the palate than in the nose. I like it as a digestif, or used in place of vermouth in cocktails where it gives its own unique flavor.