Benedictine: the French Elixir with the Secret Recipe

Fecamp, France. When you walk into the Palais Benedictine in this fishing town on the Normandy coast, you feel as if you’ve entered a giant bottle of Benedictine. The aroma of the famous herb and spice liqueur pervades every nook and cranny of this very eclectic and ornate structure. A mixture of Renaissance, gothic and art nouveau design, it houses not only the distillery but some fine art and craft work as well.

The smell reminds me of High Mass in a Roman Catholic church where incense burned throughout and you felt like someone was about to be embalmed at any moment. The analogy is an apt one because the Palais is essentially a shrine to Benedictine, the man who created it, and the man who resurrected it.
In 1937, a bartender at the “21” Club in New York created a Benedictine drink called B&B by combining Benedictine and brandy. It became so popular the Benedictine company started bottling it (with Cognac) themselves. (For some reason the idea of combining Benedictine with Calvados, Normandy’s famous apple brandy, never occurred to anyone.)
Oddly, the bartender who started it all is not canonized here or even mentioned as far as I can tell. You’d think he’d at least merit a plaque, especially since B&B outsells Benedictine by far in the United States. At least Benedictine is acknowledging the mixologist’s feat by offering an anniversary blend of Benedictine and 60 year-old Otard Cognac. And it’s a doozy with a pretty amber color, floral and herbal scents, and a nice note of orange peel.
The flavor is quite complex with smoke, spice, and iodine wrapped in brown sugar. However, at $90 the price tag for this limited edition liqueur is not for the faint of heart. (Think Graduation or Christmas.)
The story of Benedictine begins like that of many other liqueurs such as Chartreuse. In the Middle Ages, monks developed these drinks primarily as medicines. While these potions, derived from herbs, plants, and seeds, had curative powers, they were often vile tasting. But in time, production methods improved. Sweeteners were added and aging in oak casks helped to mellow flavors. As the spice trade developed, new flavors became available.
In 1510, Dom Bernardo Vincelli, a Venetian monk stationed at the Benedictine abbey here, made a tonic by infusing brandy with herbs and plants he grew in his garden as well as more exotic spices. Being a good monk, he dedicated his elixir with the initials D.O.M. for Deo Optimo Maximo, Latin for “To God, Most Good, Most Great,” a consecration that still appears on the label.
The balm was produced until the French Revolution in 1789 when the formula was lost. But in 1863, Alexandre Le Grand, a wine merchant and collector of ancient manuscripts, unearthed it. He revised the recipe, eventually settling on 27 herbs and spices such as coriander, thyme, juniper and saffron. Tea, orange peel, and honey are also added. The exact formula is a secret, of course, and copies of it are kept in three far-flung regions of the globe, just in case there is a nuclear holocaust and someone asks, “Where’s the Benedictine recipe?” Several distillation steps and about two years of oak aging give the final product its smoothness.
Benedictine became so well liked that imitations sprang up all over the world. The Palais has a charming exhibit of these pretenders, including a can of beer from the Benedictine Society Brewery in the United States. Since about 95% of Benedictine is exported, it appears the French don’t seem to take particularly well to their own product. (But the French also drink more Port and single malt Scotch than anyone. Go figure.) Because it is less sweet than Benedictine, B&B is preferred by Americans, which was my impression as well.
The Benedictine folks are trying to broaden the use of their liqueur beyond sipping it in the parlor with grandma after dinner. One way is to drink Benedictine on ice as an aperitif, which is logical because its herb, spice, and slightly bitter qualities are very much like those in well-known aperitifs such as Campari. And it’s not much of a stretch then to use Benedictine in cocktails. At the Le Maree restaurant in Fecamp (where the seafood is quite good, incidentally), I had a delicious mixture of Benedictine, sparkling wine, and framboise, the raspberry brandy.
Benedictine also has an affinity for chocolate, and the gift shop at the Palais sells Benedictine chocolates and chocolate cakes. Since Benedictine’s tang reminds me of bitters (like Angostura), I think it would also go nicely dribbled on fruit salads. And because Benedictine is a bit more syrupy than B&B, it is suggested as topping for vanilla ice cream, a concept that was probably far from Dom Bernardo Vincelli’s mind almost 500 years ago.
Here are three mixed drink recipes that include Benedictine. They come from http://www.webtender.com, which also provides recipes for another 23 Benedictine drinks.

B AND B

1/2 oz Brandy
1/2 oz Benedictine
Float brandy on top of Benedictine in a cordial glass without mixing and serve.

SINGAPORE SLING

1 oz Gin
1 oz Benedictine
1 oz Cherry brandy
4 oz Club soda
In a mixing glass half-filled with ice cubes, combine the gin, Benedictine, and cherry brandy. Stir well. Strain into a Collins glass almost filled with ice cubes. (A Collins glass is a cylindrical glass of the type in which you serve milk.) Top with the club soda and stir well.

TARANTULA

1 1/2 oz Scotch
1 oz Sweet Vermouth
1/2 oz Benedictine
1 Lemon twist
In a mixing glass half-filled with ice cubes, combine the Scotch, vermouth, and Benedictine. Stir well. Strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with the lemon twist.

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