When it comes to scoring points as a cultish liqueur, Super Punch has a few things going for it.
There’s the name itself that recalls, at least for me, Super Mario Bros. or Hawaiian Punch, both of which promise a good time. There’s the label, with its lo-fi red font that’s licked by neon green flames—a design that appears to have been created by a boardwalk T-shirt vendor. There’s the poor translation job on the back, complete with gems like, “Moreover it is unequalled in flavour when combined with ice cream when sprinkled on.”
And then there are the so-bad-maybe-it’s-good qualities of the libation itself—a dark, viscous elixir tasting of bubblegum, Jägermeister and Robitussin that is, depending on who you ask, reasonably palatable or not-even-a-little-bit okay.
In the land of pierogi and iconic, piled-high sandwiches stuffed with French fries, an obscure Italian liqueur may not be the first thing that comes to mind as a spirit unique to Pittsburgh. And yet, just as Malört is the quaffable cultural currency of Chicago, so too is Super Punch to the Steel City.
Super Punch has been produced since the late 1800s by Jannamico, a small Italian cordial producer in Lanciano, part of the Abruzzo region near the Adriatic Sea. It also happens to be made near the birthplace of wine and spirits importer Joseph D’Andrea, who immigrated to Pittsburgh in the late 1950s. D’Andrea Wine & Liquor, now run by his sons, is still the exclusive importer of Super Punch, and of the thousand or so bottles sold each year in Pennsylvania, 80 percent end up in western part of the state.
The name is derived from the product’s style: Super Punch is part of a larger family of Italian liqueurs—called Punch—that are known for their sweet profile and propensity for being sipped warm during colder months of the year. Super Punch is one of a small handful of varieties specific to the Abruzzo region. “The strange moniker of ‘Punch’ on mysterious bottles from Italy seems to follow a few threads,” says Sother Teague of New York’s Amor y Amargo. “First, they recommend drinking them warm. Second, they are all more syrupy and sweet than a typical amaro.”
Pittsburgh’s old-school Italians largely consume Super Punch as it was intended: as a festive mix-in for coffee or finishing touch on ice cream. “I like it in coffee, or with espresso,” says John D’Andrea, one of Joseph’s sons. “That’s mostly how my family does it.”
They weren’t alone. “We thought about discontinuing it a couple of times,” says D’Andrea, “but the ethnic Italians in the region wouldn’t let us. We continued to bring it on to keep the peace.”
Over the years, Super Punch migrated from the old-school Italian restaurants and supper clubs in Bloomfield, the city’s Little Italy, to shot-and-a-beer style dives. It’s there that it gained steam as a shot of choice for drinkers in the know.
“I have been drinking it since I was in my 20s, because it was always known as the Italian Jägermeister, and I liked it better because I’m Italian,” says Lou DiDonato, bar manager of Lawrenceville amari bar Grapperia (he’s now 39). “Back then, a lot of the dive-y Pittsburgh bars would have it. It would be a little treat to get the Italian Jägermeister. Now it’s called amari.”
Thanks in part to a general resurgence in interest in amari, and partly due to the craft cocktail movement that’s fully gripped Pittsburgh, Super Punch has made inroads in the higher-end bar scene, too. At least part of the credit for this trading up belongs to beverage consultant Nathan Lutchansky, who first discovered the stuff in 2005 through a friend attending grad school at Carnegie Mellon. “It’s 90 proof, so it’s not really a waste of time as far as grad student drinking goes,” Lutchansky says.
He later started serving it at the new-defunct cocktail bar Embury, and eventually at Tender Bar + Kitchen. At Tender, which opened in 2013, “we always kept around a bottle to pour for regulars and industry folks and made sure to introduce it to friends from out of town,” says Lutchansky. “A number of craft cocktail bars around picked up on it and followed suit. It’s just our weird little niche cordial that happens to be palatable to craft-cocktail folks.”
I first tried Super Punch on a recent visit to see my sister and brother-in-law, who were so used to drinking it around town they didn’t even realize that it wasn’t a thing outside of Pittsburgh. They promptly ushered me to The Independent, where Super Punch gets the red carpet treatment: It’s sold on draft, pulled from a custom tap handle adorned with a bronzed miniature boxing glove into French cordial glasses.
“I had the idea to do Super Punch on tap how Scofflaw [in Chicago] does Malört on tap,” says co-owner Adam Henry, who also runs tiki bar Hidden Harbor next door. “Super Punch is so heavy and syrupy and sweet on its own. I thought that chilled and carbonated, it would dull the sweetness and give life to an oppressively heavy spirit.” That, plus keeping the price tag at $3, makes it a low-stakes way to give Pittsburgh’s quirky specialty a chance.
“Maybe one person loves it, one hates it, they laugh and tell their friends,” says Henry. “Maybe they ask a couple questions, and learn about a neat little thing we have in Pittsburgh.”