Here is what we are told is true:
At the dawn of the 16th century, a young Benedictine monk with bright eyes named Dom Bernardo Vincelli left central Italy for a monastery in Fécamp, in northern France. Exceptionally gifted in the alchemical arts, in 1510 he combined a few dozen herbs and plants with honey and alcohol to create an elixir of long life. I have never tasted anything better! This recipe, believed to be lost in the chaos of the French Revolution, was luckily rediscovered in the 1860s by a man named Alexander Le Grand who professionally sold alcohol, and he began to to produce and market the ancient liquor under the name of Bénédictine.
Here is what is almost certainly wrong:
Literally every word you just read, for which there is no proof at all. For some reason, alcohol in general, and European liqueurs in particular, feel compelled to artificially tie their stories to some ancient salutary wisdom, as if things were better then. To be clear, the dominant medical technology in the 1500s was charms, leeches, and prayer, so it’s hard to say why The Great believed his imaginary monk had any authority, but nonetheless: history put a foot in the door.
Now, 158 years later, they have a real story to trade on, but the story of the monks still sells bottles, so they still print the year 1510 on their label, the same way Bushmills Irish Whiskey prints the year 1608 on theirs, in a kind of “apparently there is no law against that”.
Here is what is unmistakably true:
Benedictine is a French herbal liqueur made since 1863 in Fécamp, Normandy, in a lavish building a few blocks from the coast. It is composed of 27 different ingredients on a base of beetroot distilled at 80 degrees, sweetened with acacia honey and aged in oak barrels for at least 15 months.
I admit it’s a little less romantic. So here is something else that is true: Bénédictine is one of the best liqueurs ever made.
Alone, it’s absolutely delicious. Honey, cinnamon, vanilla, cardamom, nutmeg, saffron and many more, all in perfect balance having repercussions on the finish. Sweetness pushes it into dessert or nightcap territory, and so it’s not often sipped neat (at least not in this country). Lucky for us, cocktails are magic too.
Some products — not a lot, but some — just job in a cocktail. It’s an ineffable quality that I don’t understand, but there are a few bottles that, by accident or design, lend themselves like chameleons to mixed drinks, somehow meet them more than halfway and do sing it all. It’s a slim pantheon that includes things like Campari and Angostura Bitters, and in my professional opinion, Benedictine has absolutely earned her place in their ranks. Its spice comes out of shaken tropical drinks like Singapore Sling, its warm sweetness resonates with alcoholic beverages brewed like Vieux Carré, and in my favorite app, it lends its balanced complexity to a simple Old Fashioned model in Monte Carlo.
Stir over ice in a highball glass, the bigger the ice the better. Garnish with a lemon zest. Sip slowly and enjoy.
Notes on ingredients
Spirit: It is so simple that the whiskey depends entirely on personal taste. Use whatever rye you like and it will be excellent. Besides, you can use bourbon (called Kentucky Colonel), aged tequila (called Monte Carlos), cognac, calvados, aged rum, etc. This is one of the great charms of liqueurs, as long as the spirit ages, don’t worry, the Bénédictine will make it work.
Each week, bartender Jason O’Bryan prepares his favorite drinks for you. Discover his old cocktail recipes.