The Benedictine Story
Alcohol is a curious and intriguing chemical. Few people have not experienced the mild-euphoria that comes with moderate consumption, and pretty much all of those will have also experienced the somewhat less enjoyable effects of having a drop too much. Indeed the effects on the mind are the primary reason for its appeal amongst many, but it wasn’t always this way. Much of the early interest in alcohol was for its ability to preserve and extract the good bits of a variety of flora in order to be used to cure various ills. Modern science has revealed that there are better ways of administering treatments, but fortunately several products with a link back to the good ‘ol days remain.
God Bless Monks
Although Benedictine as we know it today was not produced until 1864, its beginning date right back to 1505 and can be attributed to a monk name Dom Bernado Vincelli. Vincelli had travelled to the Abbey of Fecamp in Normandy from Monte Casino, a monastery founded by St Benedict of Nursia who created the Benedictine Order. Little did he know that his name would be used to brand such a globally successful product as Benedictine I’m sure. As was common at the time, Vincelli was quite into his alchemy and, sourcing botanicals from the local hills, he set about creating an elixir that was to become a firm favorite of the King. Indeed, so popular was this elixir that monks atthe Abbey continued to distill it for more than three centuries.
The French Revolution brought a fair bit of disruption to Francecausing things to fizzle out for the elixir, and it was thought that the recipe was lost forever. In a remarkably fortunate turn of events however, a wine trader by the name of Alexandre Le Grand happened upon an old book in the family library in the 1860’s which turned out to be Vincelli’s thesis on alchemy, containing the recipe for his elixir no less! Like any good drinker would, Le Grand set about recreating the elixir, naming it Benedictine and right from the early days marking each bottle with the Latin phrase Deo Optima Maximo (To God, who is the best and the greatest).
Like Vincelli’s elixir before it, the new Benedictine became a bit of a hit and it wasn’t long before it was being exported worldwide. Le Grand must have been a bit of an eccentric chap, for he decided to celebrate his product by building an entire palace in honour of it. Using a mish-mash of architectural styles, the home of Benedictine was cemented in 1888 following a design drawn up by Gothic specialist Viollet-el-Duc. The Palace remains the home of Benedictine to this day, housing not only the production and aging facilities for the liqueur, but also a fascinating collection of historical oddities and an extraordinary archive of ancient manuscripts. The earliest of these manuscripts dates to 1006 and there is even a letter from William the Conquerer donating land to the Benedictine monks.
Production of Benedictine is a complicated affair involving 27 botanicals, four different distillates or infusions, and a total of 15 months barrel-aging. After selection, the botanicals are divided into two groups, with each group divided again into two more, lets call these 1a, 1b, 2a and 2b. Group 1a undergoes a double distillation in copper pot stills, whilst group 1b undergoes a single distillation in the same stills. These two distillates are then aged for three months in oak barrels. Group 2a contains lemon peels which are first macerated than double distilled in copper pot stills, whilst group 2b undergo a simple infusion. Both groups then also undergo a three month aging in oak barrels. After three months aging, the four groups are blended and aged again this time for eight months. Finally, the blend is heated to 55 Celcius before adding honey and saffron as the final ingredients. Then it’s back into another barrel for a final four months before filtering and bottling. The barrels themselves vary in size but are much larger than the barrels commonly associated with whisk(e)y production. They are also used repeatedly, with repairs being carried out as necessary, but with no particular limit on the number of times each one may be used.
In addition to Benedictine D.O.M, the palace also produces B&B (Benedictine and Brandy) using the same Benedictine recipe as which is bottled on its own, and the Benedictine Single Cask which is available only from the Palace itself. The single cask is a drier formulation on account of a smaller amount of honey being added, and it also benefits from an additional two months oak ageing.
The three drinks below were the winning entries from the three regional competition winners of the 2012 Benedictine Bartender Challenge
DOM by Andy Loudon
20ml Lemon Juice, 40ml Manzanilla Sherry, 35ml Benedictine
Stir ingredients with ice and strain into a chilled coupette. Garnish with mint, lemon zest and Amaro cherries
A French Connection by David Fraser
120ml Benedictine, 120ml VS Cognac, 60ml Triple Sec, 100ml Soda, 500ml French Cider
Add ingredients with ice to a punch bowl and garnish with summer fruits steeped in a 1:1:1 ratio of honey:water:Benedictine
The DOM by Leon Dalloway
35ml Benedictine, 25ml Lemon Tea Vodka, 5ml Noilly Prat
Stir ingredients with ice and strain into a chilled coupette rinsed with Laphraoig whisky.
Clicky here to read my review of this delightful liqueur.