Mate is Argentina’s liquid soul. The ritual of preparing and drinking mate is not a means of satisfying a daily craving, but a communal rite steeped in rich tradition.
In a part of South America that has been home to immigrants of many nationalities since the days of its colonization, mate has served as a cultural bond for centuries, and continues to be a thread of commonality for diverse Argentines today. Since my arrival in Córdoba (Argentina’s second largest city), several local people have invited me to share in drinking two of the country’s most iconic drinks, fernet y Coca and, of course, mate. “Drinking mate is more about the ceremony of it,” explains Coti Orias, a new Cordobese friend of mine. “Whether you’re the president of the country or you live in one of the worst slums, you’re going to drink it the exact same way. It’s that simplicity that levels people out.” The shared drink is central to Argentine culture, though not in the straw-stuffed fish bowl style Americans love so well. It’s not about frill or excess or Insta-worthy concoctions, but rather about the actual act of coming together to enjoy a common experience.
There’s a certain magic—and a very specific technique—to the experience of consuming mate in the company of others. A hollow gourd is filled with dried yerba mate leaves and a metal “bombilla” straw is inserted, but absolutely not stirred. The gourd is then filled with hot water by el cebador (the primer), who passes it to the first person to drink. Each serving of mate is consumed by a single person before the gourd is handed back to el cebador for a hot water refill. “People might be weirded out because you’re sharing the same straw, but there’s an urban legend that you can’t get sick from it—it goes against the spirit of mate,” says Orias. “People are religious about drinking it. It’s ingrained in the lifestyle.”
And while mate is Argentina’s spiritual drink, fernet and Coke is the party-friendly counterpart. Outside of Italy, fernet’s birthplace, Argentina houses the only production facility, and Argentinians consume 75 percent of all fernet produced globally. The drink began as a digestif meant to be slowly sipped; a favorite of older, more sophisticated types.“When we were growing up, it was something our parents or grandparents would drink after eating. We thought it was so gross!” recalls Orias. With the advent of a Coca-Cola mix-in, however, it has become a cultural mainstay even among the younger generations, including Orias and her friends.
Fernet, which has a 39 percent ABV and is made from a grape alcohol base, is flavored with over 40 other ingredients, including anise seed, bay leaves, bitter orange, mushrooms, licorice, peppermint, and rhubarb. Altogether, it’s a bit of an acquired taste—my unprepared American palate found it bitter, burning, and medicinal. Meant for sharing, it’s always made in large containers that are passed around (“You never prepare just the one drink for yourself,” says Orias) with lots of ice and a 30/70 fernet to Coke ratio. To drink it like a local, cut off the top of a plastic liter Coke bottle, smoothen out the jagged plastic with the help of a lighter, and mix the drink within the makeshift jug. Of course, its alcoholic content loosens lips and fuels some serious socializing, but it’s the act of passing it around that ignites a sense of camaraderie and connection. “It’s not even about the drink itself, it’s about who you’re sharing it with and in what situation,” says Orias. “It’s the same with mate—it’s not a beverage, it’s an experience of community.”