Ah, yes, another look into one of the terrifying yet enticing Italian bottles on the back bar. In this case, Punt e Mes, self-described as “L’Originale Alternativa.”
It’s not all that obscure a drink and is worth learning about since it has year-round applicability—and yes, said applicability involves intoxication. In a way that Italian aperitivos and digestivos sometimes do (see: Cynar), the name will go at least half way to explaining the contents of the bottle.
“Punt e mes” means “point and a half” in Piedmontese. That’s not the ABV or the barman’s final score on how clean your landing was after that last collapse. It refers to the combination of vermouth and bitters that you’ll find in the bottle. And you’ll find them there thanks to an Italian businessman who felt a little extra bitter one day in the 19th Century.
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Or so the story goes. In fact, parent company Carpano is so confident in the story they’ve got it down to the date: April 19, 1870, an Italian stockbroker is hotly discussing some recent stock stuff (if you want technical terms, head to the WSJ). Seems as if his regular Carpano vermouth rosso—aromatized red wine—just wouldn’t do that day. So he “asked the barman to add half a measure of bitter quina liqueur, using the regional expression ‘Punt e Mes.’” It’s kind of unclear whether our Italian stockbroker was happy or sad; according to Carpano, “share prices” of some unnamed commodity had increased “one and a half points,” which reads like a good thing to the economically uninitiated (well, initiated by debt but not much else). Also, coincidence that share prices had increased one and a half points, and the drink invented on the same day—by a guy whose name, in the clutter of all this specific detail, was presumably lost—is called Punt e Mes? OK, maybe we’re reaching for a conspiracy.
Anyway, the drink took off, popular “as an aperitif before lunch,” according to the “barman of the time Maurizio Boeris.” (So his name we know?) What’s more fun, with the popular drink came a popular gesture—and who doesn’t like a new hand gesture? Italian bars, espresso and otherwise, must be generally crowded, as people looking for their midday Punt e Mes fix eventually resorted to a simple—and kind of offensive-seeming—hand gesture: they’d “raise their thumb to mean one point and trace a straight line upwards in mid-air to mean a half point.” (We tried it; it feels like if you do this in a crowd in a relatively cosmopolitan city, somebody will punch you.)
Potential uppercuts aside, Punt e Mes has been popular ever since. And we can testify, it’s actually delicious on its own (pending a certain tolerance for bitterness). It looks like flat cola and has a bit of that aroma, too, with a little dark brown sugary birch. But there’s a surprising brightness on the palate with notes of orange pith, mint and cinnamon bark. The bitterness only comes out on the finish, subtly but assertively book-ending the sip.
Which is to say, we totally get why the woman in this commercial from 1964 keeps running after it. And apparently some man luring her with it? Seriously, it looks like this lady has been forced or challenged into a weird, albeit sunny, Mediterranean Punt e Mes crawl—while wearing heels, no less. As far as we can tell, it looks like the rules are everywhere she runs to with sufficiently childish playfulness, as long as she gives the perfect just-so-insane smile (see around 1:45), she gets a shot of Punt e Mes. (New terrible bachelorette drinking game, anyone?)
PS – That is not the only Punt e Mes commercial that will make you feel like you’re going insane. Not by far. But yes, the stuff is delicious. Great with some tonic or soda on a hot summer day. No jogging or gesturing required.