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February 19, 2012

The Facts:

Name: Bénédictine
Category: Liqueur — Herbal
Proof: 80 (40% ABV)
Origin: France, at least since 1863, allegedly since 1510.
Nose: Honey and saffron; low spice notes of nutmeg & mace
Taste: Thick and sweet; cinnamon, honey and saffron instantly; vanilla on the midpalate with cardamom, with slight alcohol burn; faint cooking spices; long, lingering finish

The Story:

Here is what is indisputably true:

Bénédictine is a liqueur built on a neutral grain spirit base made from distilled beetroot (and not brandy or cognac, which is what practically everyone thinks). It is a combination of 27 different plants and spices, the exact composition of which is a fiercely guarded secret, but are known to include angelica, hyssop, aloe, arnica, vanilla, myrrh, nutmeg, mace, cloves, cinnamom, cardamom, citrus peel, saffron, and honey. The ingredients are divided in four different batches, or “esprits,” which are individually aged for 3 months, then combined with the saffron and honey and aged for 12 additional months. It is made at the baroque Le Palais Bénédictine, in Fécamp, Normandy, it is currently owned by Bacardi, and it is delicious.

Here is what we’re told is true:

At the dawning of the sixteenth century, a young Venetian monk of the Benedictine order named Dom Bernardo Vincelli was transferred from his comfortable lodgings in Monte Cassino to the abbey at Fécamp, Normandy. The erudite Italian was practiced in the alchemical arts and crafted several recipes, among them an initially medicinal “elixir” based on 27 plants and spices. The elixir of Friar Bernardo swiftly became a local favorite, impressing even King François I who, upon tasting the liquid during a visit to the region, exclaimed, “On my word as a gentleman! I have never tasted better!”*

Bolstered by a royal endorsement, the liqueur thrived on for almost three hundred years, until in 1792 the Abbey was partially destroyed during the tumult of the French revolution by whom the New York Times would later refer to as “the implacable republicans of Normandy.”

The recipe gone, the monks scattered, the abbey burned to the ground, the liqueur all spilled or drank by pyrophilic heathens, it seemed as if Friar Bernardo’s elixir was forever lost to time. Until about 70 years later, in 1863, a lucky wine merchant named Alexandre Le Grand discovered an ancient instructional manuscript at a relative’s house, and began making the liqueur, which he named after the monk who invented it. Being delicious, as it is, is rapidly propagated. He housed his distillery in Fécamp, as Vincelli had done, and began large scale production. The building again burned to the ground in 1893 and was rebuilt as something of a gothic castle in 1900, and Bénédictine has been produced there ever since.

Here is what is almost certainly false:

Pretty much everything you just read except for the last half-paragraph or so.

Wikipedia flat out says the story of the seredipideous manuscript is outright false, and common sense agrees. I don’t know why, but the world of liquor is uncommonly flush with these stories, of the toiling monks of the silent order who make the liqueur and only say one word a year, “…delicious,” and so on and so on. There was indeed a Benedictine abbey at Fécamp, and it was indeed partially destroyed, but there are no monks there anymore and haven’t been in centuries (note: Bénédictine never actually claims that monks currently make the liqueur), and no corroborating evidence I’ve been able to find for it. There is, in fact, no evidence of Dom Bernardo Vincelli’s existence at all.

Far more likely is that Alexandre Le Grand created a remarkably good liqueur, and created an ancient origin story based on the history of the city in which he was based. Bullshit though it likely is, it remains a charming story.

The Uses:

In play, it’s a tremendously versatile liqueur. It’s complex and delicious enough to drink straight after dinner, or mixed to great effect. Equal parts  it and cognac is a B&B (also pre-bottled by Bénédictine themselves, for the lazy) and it pairs tremendously with whiskey for drinks like the Fort Point or Bobby Burns and just a little bit of it shines like a diamond out of the Vieux Carré.

See the complete list of Bénédictine cocktails here.

Trivia!: The promonint “DOM” does not refer to the “Dominican Order of Monks,” a wholly imagined backronym. It is “Deo Optimo Maximo,” the latin motto of the Benedictine order, which they translate to “to God, most good, most great.”

(Trivia about the above trivia!: “Deo Optimo Maximo” was a Latin phrase from way back. All the way back to when the Romans were polytheists, actually, as it directly translates to “to the greatest and best God,” referring to Jupiter. When the Roman empire became Christian, they cleverly took advantage of the arbitrary nature of latin phrasing, so “to the greatest and best God [of all the rest]” became “to God, greatest, best.” Which doesn’t have a thing to do with drinks or drinking, but is interesting nonetheless.)

*He would’ve said this in French.

6 Comments leave one →
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