If monks can't have women, the saying goes, God may as well give them booze. Some of the finest wines, beers and spirits are produced by monks; it was monks, in fact, who surmised the terroir in Burgundy. Trappist monks give us terrific ales, and this elbow-bender finds Chartreuse so bewitching, his next book features Carthusian monks and their potent green stuff prominently in the plot.
Then there are the Bénédictines. A pragmatic Venetian, Dom Bernardo Vincelli, developed Bénédictine in 1510 as a remedy for malaria around the Fécamp Abbey in northern France and consecrated it to God as D.O.M. Bénédictine (Deo Optimo Maximo) for "To God, Most Good, Most Great." At the time, Venice was a gateway to the spice centers of the East, and Vincelli's formula of 27 herbs and spices was an exotic and popular drink. When the monastery dissolved during the French Revolution, the recipe was forgotten until a wine merchant, Alexandre le Grand, discovered the formula nearly a century later in a 16th-century manuscript among family heirlooms and breathed fresh life into the bottle.
What's It Like?
Bénédictine offers a honey-amber color with a nose of cloves, nutmeg and other spices, along with vivid notes of caramel, orange rind, candied lemon and butterscotch. It possesses a tongue-coating viscosity, but it's not syrupy. Master sommelier Vincent Gasnier, in his opus Drinks, writes: "Bénédictine's 27 herbs and spices include some that are sweet-tasting, such as vanilla and coriander; bitter, such as myrrh; and peppery and hot, such as cardamom and cinnamon." These are combined through a meticulous distillation process; four batches are aged separately and then blended before additional aging. All in all, it's nearly three years from copper still to barrel to bottle to your snifter.
Some veteran imbibers know Bénédictine's cousin, B&B. Short for "Bénédictine and Brandy," B&B was first invented in the 1930s by a barman at Manhattan's iconic 21 Club. By 1937, Bénédictine was being bottled with French brandy as B&B. Today, the blend is 60 percent Bénédictine and 40 percent Otard cognac; it's enhanced with acacia honey and saffron and aged in oak for a year. For years, I simply called it "antifreeze" because it was my mama's cold-weather flaskable of choice. No mere barhopping slug, B&B is a gown-worthy, post-gala-appropriate cordial that deserves cashmere and respectable crystal.
Patrick Gavin Duffy, in his 1940 guide, the Official Mixer's Manual, likes the Widow's Dream Cocktail, which marries "1 Drink Bénédictine" and "1 Cold Fresh Egg," and adds, "Fill up with Cream." But it's never improper to ask for Bénédictine straight up, on the rocks or simply neat. And I pray you'll enjoy it with a woman … since the monks never will. Amen.
Milk & Honey, the quintessential London speakeasy (where I had my first true Aviation Cocktail), makes its house drink with Bénédictine. Le Pomme Frère is my creation.
Milk & Honey
• 1 1/2 ounces of Bénédictine in a toddy mug
Top up with hot or cold milk, and garnish with an orange slice and grated cinnamon.
Le Pomme Frère
• 1 1/2 ounces of Bénédictine
• Splashes of Noilly Prat dry vermouth to taste
• Two dashes of orange bitters
Top with sparkling apple cider (I used cider from Westmoreland Orchard in Oak Grove, available at Byrd House Market, and charged it in a soda siphon with carbon-dioxide cartridges — available at gourmet shops), then garnish with a local apple slice.