I have been in Italy for just over a year, work related not liesure, and found Punt e Mes very early on. It is available in most major supermarkets in Italy, IperCoop, Esselunge, GS, CarreFour etc., usually for less than 5 Euros. I am a cocktail person myself and found Punt e Mes to be a more than worthy substitute for Rosso Vermouth in making a Manhattan, I haven't tried it but am quite sure it would enhance a Negroni.
It wouldn't surprise me if you'd never heard of Punt e Mes. Even most wine merchants didn't seem to have heard of it, when I looked on the net and even made a few calls to investigate prices and availability. Certainly very few stock it. It was a bit of an oddity when I first tried it thirty or forty years ago, but it has become only less well known and harder to find ever since.
Punt e Mes can still be found, but probably not by simply looking on the shelves of your local supermarket or off-licence. This is a pity, because it is a drink with a most distinctive - and to my taste quite delicious - flavour.
* What is it? *
Punt e Mes is an aperitif or rather, since it is Italian rather than French, I suppose I should say aperitivo. It's intended to be drunk as a refresher before a meal, or just as a refresher; the meal is optional. It comes within the generic group known as vermouths, and probably has most in common with the red vermouths produced by the likes of Martini and Cinzano, though its colour is darker and browner than either. Like them, it can be drunk on its own or used as an ingredient in cocktails, although to my mind it is wasted in the latter role.
* Origins *
According to the "legend" that used to be related on the label on the back of the bottle, the recipe for Punt e Mes arose from a misunderstanding between the barman Antonio Carpano and one of his customers as to the amount of Carpano's proprietary vermouth flavouring the customer wanted in his wine. The resultant "punt e mes" (literally, "a point and a half") turned out to be the ideal mix, and Carpano took the recipe into volume production.
That was in Turin in 1786 and Punt e Mes continued to be produced by the Carpano family business right up to 2002. It was then taken over by the Milan firm of Fratelli Branca, who brew the equally arcane concoction Fernet Branca, best known, if it is known at all, as a cure for hangovers.
Punt e Mes seems to have been given a bit of an image makeover by its new owners this year, with the Carpano brand-name being dropped and the label redesigned, having previously been unchanged for decades. However, since this makeover has been unaccompanied by any publicity, at least in this country, it may only have moved Punt e Mes only from one cloak of obscurity to another.
* Ingredients and flavour *
"Wine, sugar, alcohol and natural flavours" the bottle tells me, which doesn't exactly give a lot away about the secret recipe. So let's see what we can surmise as to its formulation.
The base wine, presumably, is from the local Piedmontese moscato grapes, which are the staple for most Italian vermouths of any quality. The alcohol added to bring the drink up to the desired strength (16% by volume) would, one hopes, be vinous in origin and local too. The precise provenance of the sugar probably doesn't matter. So that leaves us with the "natural flavours" to ponder over.
Well, vermouth obviously, from the dried flowers of the wormwood (artemisia absinthium), but after that it's anyone's guess. Let's take a sniff of the bouquet and a long sip to swill around the mouth while we think about it. The characteristic taste of Punt e Mes is bitter-sweet, and the lingering, almost medicinal bitterness might come from quinine. Possibly some orange, or orange flower extract is there too; the aroma is distinctly orangey. Then there seems to be a flavour of liquorice, or perhaps aniseed, or both. Oh, and probably some other herbs beside; whatever old Carpano had hanging around in the kitchen all those years ago, or that the signori from Fernet Branca have thought of since they took over.
And therein lies a suspicion: that this year's makeover has not been confined to the packaging, but has extended to the recipe. I tend only to drink Punt e Mes around Christmas time, buying just a bottle or two each year. Without any of last year's still around for direct comparison, it's hard to say for certain whether the flavour has been changed. It's definitely similar to how I remember it - and still well worth drinking - but perhaps a touch less bitter, a shade more sugary. Perhaps subtly less subtle too. Or maybe I'm imagining it.
* How to drink it *
To my palate, Punt e Mes is best drunk on its own and very cold, to offset the syrupy sweetness. Fill a tumbler with ice, add a slice of fresh orange - ideally unwaxed organic orange - and splash the dark liquid in until it covers the ice. Wait a few minutes to ensure that it's chilled right through, then start sipping and savouring. Don't swig; too much in the mouth overwhelms the taste buds. Equally, don't leave it hanging around too long, or the melting ice will overly dilute it. About fifteen or twenty minutes, and that's it. Move on to something else for the rest of the evening. A second glassful is not the same; the flavour, so delightfully different at first, soon starts to cloy. Come back the next day and it will be fine again.
On their website, Branca suggest three other ways of drinking Punt e Mes, which they describe as "cocktails", although only one - the "Negroni" - would really seem to qualify. This consists of a third of Punt e Mes, a third of gin, and a third of Campari or similar bitter aperitif. If you're keen on cocktails you might like to try it, but it seems like a waste of both Campari and Punt e Mes to me.
The other two are just variations on the theme of making Punt e Mes a longer drink and utilising its affinity with orange. "Seventies" with crushed iced orange-juice, and "Cienfuegos" with extra sugar, ground ice and freshly cut orange slices. Fine if you like that kind of thing, but I can't believe it needs extra sugar under any circumstances.
A few nuts to nibble - lightly-salted roast almonds or cashews for preference - are all you need by way of an accompaniment.
* Price and availability *
Punt e Mes tends to be slightly more expensive than other vermouths, but it is genuinely different from them so the comparison is not exact. I bought my latest 75 cl bottle for £9.95 at Gerry's Wines and Spirits in Old Compton Street, London W1 - about the one place you can still be sure to find it. Of course, that's not very convenient for everyone (or even me) but if your locality is a Punt e Mes desert - as is all too likely - I have located it also available on the net from several merchants: Cockburn's of Leith, Tanners Wines and the Wine Shop, priced between £10.49 and £10.95. Oddbins always used to stock it, but I cannot find it on their website this year.
Or you could always go to Italy.
* Afterthought *
In researching the background to Punt e Mes on the internet, I came across this excerpt from a book about vermouth by former merchant Gerard Noel:
"Punt e Mes; a bottom shelf bottle back in the 'them were the days' days of running a wine merchant. Not exactly neglected, more ignored and misunderstood. Sales were negligible, 2 or 3 bottles a year to the same old comely gent...."
I'm sure I can't have been the old comely gent in question, for all kinds of reasons. But as a Punt e Mes drinker the quotation does make me feel like a member of an endangered species, hence my eagerness to publicise it here.
To me there are several mysteries about Punt e Mes, apart from the secret recipe, and whether that has been recently altered. The main one is why the owners of the brand don't make more effort to spread the word about its special flavour. The last time I can remember seeing it advertised was way back in the sixties, with a rather stylish poster. I can't remember whether it was that which prompted me to try it for the first time, but if it has their investment has been repaid amply over the years since. They really ought to try it again to see if they can get anyone else interested. Failing that, let me assure you that it really is worth giving it a try, if you can only find it.
© first published under the name torr on Ciao UK, December 15th 2006
One of the most popular Vermouths with an aroma of wormwood and hints of bitter herbs.