“I’ll have one of those Moscow Mule things,” the grandmother of the little clan said.
I chuckled inwardly. A friend once said, “Once your grandmother knows about something, it’s no longer cool.”
The bar business is all about hipness and trends. Nobody wants to be the last guy shaking martinis when stirring them is all the rage. Or the other way around, as it were.
“I’ll have a Manhattan,” the bearded grandson of the group said. I waited the customary two beats to see if more instructions were forthcoming. When none came, I started to speak, but was interrupted almost immediately.
“With Angel’s Envy bourbon and Antica Formula,” he added.
These days it’s super-cool to call not only your whiskey, but also your vermouth. And when it comes to uber-cool, nothing is cooler than Carpano’s Antica Formula vermouth.
Another two beats and I turned to go.
“And lots of bitters.”
Being an educator at heart I ventured some information.
“You know, Punt e Mes is the same thing as Antica vermouth and bitters, just combined.”
He looked at me as if I had just debunked the Holy Trinity.
“No it’s not. Antica is the original,” he said.
“It’s a ‘point’ of vermouth made by Carpano,” I said. “And a ‘half point’ of bitters. Punt e Mes.”
“Not in my experience it isn’t.”
The story goes that Antonio Benedetto Carpano, a wine peddler from Turin, Italy, invented the first red vermouth in 1786. Carpano noticed that women didn’t seem to care for the red wines of his region (Piedmont is known for hugely tannic wines made from Nebbiolo, most notably Barolo and Barbaresco), so he took it upon himself to create a reddish wine that women might like.
Using local white wine made from the moscato grape, he colored it with caramel (burnt sugar) and added various herbs and spices to sweeten it, including cinnamon, citrus peel, cloves, coriander, ginger, star anise, sage, basil, thyme and chamomile. To balance the sweetness he added the bitterness of quinine, juniper berries, hops, gentian, mugwort and the aperitif’s namesake, wormwood. He then added a dose of distilled spirits and named it, oddly, after the German name for wormwood, wermut, which in French becomes vermouth.
Soon his shop, the Piazza Castello, became the most popular place in town and remained so for the next 150 years. Sweet vermouth later became known as Italian vermouth and is now manufactured by many companies in and out of Italy.
Many people assume that the Antica formula is Carpano’s original formulation. It is not. Carpano Classico vermouth is considered to be that recipe (Classico is not readily available in the U.S).. Antica is a product that was introduced in the 1990s and packaged to look like a much older product. While delicious, Antica is not the original red vermouth. In fact, it is not even Carpano’s original red vermouth.
Carpano introduced Punt e Mes in 1867, and it soon became the company’s most popular product. Through the waxing and waning fortunes of the liquor industry, Punt e Mes’ fortunes also rose and fell. The Carpano brand survived Prohibition and flourished in the Manhattan drinking 1950s and ’60s only to fall on hard times during the Cosmo-swilling ’80s. Superseded by the new “antica” formulation, today Punt e Mes doesn’t get its fair shake, if you’ll pardon the expression.
I thought of making all this known to the bearded grandson, but before I could, he continued.
“Carpano doesn’t own Punt e Mes anymore. Fratelli Branca does,” he said.
Sure enough, he was right. The Carpano family sold the rights to make their products to Milan’s Fratelli Branca firm, famous for Fernet Branca, the ubiquitous restaurant employee beverage virtually synonymous with San Francisco.
Leaving me with these thoughts:
• No matter how much you know, you never know it all.
• The difference between an antique and junk is often just the price.
• The House of Cocchi has recently begun producing a Vermouth di Torino, which they say dates to an 1891 recipe. Believe it at your own peril.
• Both the Cocchi vermouth and Punt e Mes are about 20 percent cheaper than Antica Formula.
• Antica actually means old in Italian, antique is antico. Antique can be a compliment, old is not.
• Punt e Mes is advertised as the “the original alternative,” which makes me wonder, alternative to what?
• You can teach an old dog new tricks, if said old dog is inclined to learn.
• And finally, who are you calling old?