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Cocktails

Italy’s 400-Year-Old Espresso Punch

February 01, 2022

Story: Andrea Strafile

photo: Lizzie Munro

Cocktails

Italy’s 400-Year-Old Espresso Punch

February 01, 2022

Story: Andrea Strafile

photo: Lizzie Munro

Along the Tuscan coast, the Livorno Punch—or ponce alla Livornese—still has a small, but devoted band of followers.

The notion of Italianate cocktails tends to conjure images of aperitivo classics—Negronis and spritzes accompanied by olives, prosciutto and crostini. The drink that comes to mind is likely not a steaming hot mixture of espresso and rum. But in Livorno, a seaside Tuscan town, order the local punch—ponce alla Livornese—and that’s exactly what you’ll get.

Unlike traditional punch, the 17th century proto-cocktail comprising some combination of spirits, sugar, citrus and tea, Livorno Punch—espresso, sugar, lemon peel and rum—spotlights coffee in lieu of tea making it right at home alongside Italy's native caffè corretto. Like punch of every ilk, Livorno Punch ranks among the oldest alcoholic drinks, having been served in its hometown for more than 400 years.

As a prominent commercial port in the 1700s, Livorno was a popular stop for English sailors voyaging home with the East India Company. As has been well documented, these English sailors were among the earliest adopters of punch, responsible for bringing the mixture, sometimes flavored with spices from their trade routes, to much of the rest of the world. The inhabitants of Livorno adopted this basic recipe, substituting coffee for tea and turning to rumme—imitation rum made from neutral spirit, sugar, essence of rum and often spices like cinnamon—when the real thing wasn’t available.

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Although the recipe rarely traveled beyond its native Livorno, today it’s difficult to find even there. Newer bars have turned their attention to drinks from the Golden Age and beyond, like the Negroni and Manhattan, but there remain a few bastions of the Old World where the tradition continues. The most famous of these is Bar Civili, which has been serving authentic ponce since 1890. “When the bars at the port after World War II disappeared or welcomed new spirits from the United States like bourbon,” explains Carlo Fusco, the fourth-generation bartender, “we continued to serve ponce as per tradition.” In keeping with tradition, Bar Civili even uses a custom-formulated rumme created in the 1900s by the Italian heritage brand Vittori.

To make Livorno Punch at home, Manuel Di Cecco, bartender at Freni e Frizioni in Rome, suggests using a spiced rum to mimic the flavor of rumme, which can be difficult to find outside of Italy. In his recipe, a barspoon of sugar and a lemon twist are added to a small tempered glass topped with two ounces of spiced rum and an ounce and a half of hot espresso. It is meant to be thrown back quickly. “What I like most about ponce is that it is a melting pot between a simple coffee and a proper international drink,” says Di Cecco. Plus, he adds, “it reflects the nature of Livorno people—perfect welcoming hosts.”

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