Hesperidina isn’t a drink you can find at any liquor stores in Maine, or probably in many shops or bars anywhere in the United States. It’s flavored with orange peel and a blend of herbs and botanicals, like a less sweet version of Cointreau or other triple secs.
And yet, the aperitif — the national liqueur of Argentina — was created in Buenos Aires more than 150 years ago by Melville Sewell Bagley, a Bangor native. How did a man from Bangor end up creating an iconic South American alcohol? It all starts on the mean streets of the Queen City.
Bagley, born in 1838, was the son of Sewell and Sarah Bagley, both from Waldo County. He grew up in Bangor in the 1840s and 50s, an era in which Bangor grew to become what was then known as the “lumber capital of the world.” Though little is known about Bagley’s youth in Maine, being exposed to such industrious environs may have fueled his entrepreneurial nature.
By 1860, Bagley had left Maine for New Orleans, where he sought to make his fortune as a dry goods merchant. In 1861, however, with the outbreak of the Civil War, his business dried up. It’s not known if Bagley was facing conscription into the military, or if he was in danger as a northerner based in the South, but either way, he hightailed it out of the U.S. and headed even farther south, eventually landing in Argentina.
There, Bagley reportedly worked at a pharmacy, Farmacia La Estrella, which is still in business today. A savvy businessman, he began experimenting with creating a digestive liqueur, a type of drink that was all the rage in mid-19th century America and that he figured he could make popular in South America.
Noting the prevalence of bitter orange trees all over the city, Bagley collected their peels and began soaking them in alcohol, adding various herbs and other botanical ingredients, until eventually, in 1864, he’d landed on the right mix. He named it Hesperidina, after the mythical Greek nymphs known as the Hesperides, and touted its supposed health benefits.
According to travel website The Culture Trip, Bagley claimed Hesperidina “stimulates and tones the nervous system; promotes healthy secretions of the body… [and is] a safe and pleasant remedy for dyspepsia, indigestion, constipation, colic diarrhea, dysentery, chlorosis, and nervous attacks of the stomach, intestines, head and heart.” One has to wonder if Bagley didn’t pick up some of his ad copy skills from similar ads for “elixirs” that one would have seen in the newspapers of the time, like in the Bangor Whig and Courier, predecessor to the Bangor Daily News.
In an early form of guerilla marketing, Bagley painted walls and had cryptic posters printed up that read “Hesperidina is coming,” and placed them around Buenos Aires. He also reportedly had a cart laden with bottles of the stuff “accidentally” break down in front of the offices of a newspaper, offering journalists a taste of his concoction.
Within months, Hesperidina was wildly popular, spawning many imitators across the country. To prevent his brand from being co-opted, Bagley convinced the Argentine government to create a patent office, and Hesperidina became the first trademark issue in the country. He also had the label printed in the U.S., to prevent forgeries. The drink was so popular that, during the War of the Triple Alliance between Paraguay and an allied Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil, the Argentine military provided it to soldiers to drink to settle their stomachs.
Bagley wasn’t satisfied with simply being a liquor magnate, however. In 1875, his company began producing a line of biscuits, a product that grew until it eventually overtook Hesperidina as the Bagley company’s main offering.
Bagley himself didn’t live long enough to see his company, which still exists, become the largest manufacturer of cookies and biscuits in Argentina. He died in 1880, and his wife, Mary, took over operation of the business. Distant relatives of Bagley’s likely still remain in Maine and New England, but few realize who their ancestor was.
In 1994, Bagley was sold to French multinational food corporation Danone, and in 2004, the company sold off the Hesperidina brand to the company Tres Blasones, which itself was bought by another company, Grupo Cepas S.A., in 2018.
In the 1940 and 50s, Hesperidina was the hottest drink in Argentina, especially popular in tango bars. Today, Hesperidina is a little bit old-fashioned, considered an “old man’s drink” in trendy bars in Buenos Aires, though contemporary mixologists are slowly trying to reclaim its status as a source of national pride, and representatives from its parent company said in 2018 they hoped to begin selling bottles outside the country.
Despite its ups and downs in popularity, however, the fact remains that it was a Bangor man who invented a drink that came to symbolize a South American nation.
Now, when can we buy it in Maine?