One of the trickiest aspects of being a home cocktailer is simply having all the right ingredients on hand for the particular drink you want to be making at any given time. It gets slightly trickier with drinks that call for vermouths, since, even when refrigerated after opening, they have a pretty limited shelf-life. Most experts advise us to use a bottle within a month or two at the latest. Sweet, dry, or blanco, they all get progressively less tasty over time.
So, when I found myself impulsively opening a bottle of Punt e Mes, a bittersweet Italian vermouth and a longtime personal favorite, I realized I’d have to do something with it soon. Mind you, while I get some things for free — including scoring myself a bottle of Punt e Mes some years back — this was a bottle I purchased with my own cash and, at $25-$30.00 a bottle, it’s not particularly cheap. So, it was time to make me some delicious Punt e Mes cocktails…except there really aren’t all that many that specifically call for it in more than very small amounts.
If you’ve never tasted Punt e Mes, know that it has a rich, strong chocolate-like undertaste that makes it a notably different animal from standard sweet vermouth. If, on the other hand, you’re familiar with the increasingly de rigeur Carpano Antica it won’t be totally foreign; I think Punt e Mes is it’s bolder, more engaging younger brother. The story goes that it was created when some quina liqueur — a strong concoction of cherry and quinine, we are told — was added to vermouth. The name means “point and a half,” presumably referring to the proportion of sweet and bitter flavorings. In any case, while it’s very much it’s own thing, Punt e Mes can be substituted in most recipes that call for regular sweet vermouth
That’s exactly what I’ll be doing over the next couple of weeks, recreating a couple of cocktail classics and seeing what difference one little ingredient can make. For this week, we find ourselves with what is arguably Italy’s most famed contribution to cocktails, the Negroni. I’ve dealt with this drink back in 2011 and handled an interesting variation on the classic much more recently. Still, I think this version my be my favorite iteration yet.
The Negroni (con Punt e Mes)
1 ounce gin
1 ounce Punt e Mes
1 ounce Campari
1 orange slice (highly desirable garnish)
Combine the liquid ingredients in a cocktail shaker, shake molto vigorously, and strain into a chilled cocktail glass, adding your garnish. Prepare your mouth for a multilevel taste treat.
I should add right away that it’s also permissible, and arguably more traditional, to strain a Negroni into a rocks glass over fresh ice — I just don’t like it as much that way, maybe because it tends to dilute the very sweet and very bitter delights of this particular mix. I tried this with both Bombay Dry Gin and Plymouth Gin and the results were equally good. I suspect even a value priced Gordon’s variation would have been just fine as well. Some Negroni recipes pump up the gin but, for me, that only lessened the pleasure.
In any case, if you’re used to Negronis made with standard Martini or Noilly Pratt type vermouths, you’ll notice a definite difference. That chocolate undertaste I mentioned before remains strong, bolstered by the very sweet but very bitter Campari and in no way compromised by the herbaceous lightness of the gin. Indeed, I think it’s a big improvement over a standard Negroni..but next week’s variation on a Punt e Mes theme might be an even bigger upgrade over the standard version of a different (though definitely related) drink. Stay tuned.