JiggerWocky: adventures in alcohol and academics

JiggerWocky: adventures in alcohol and academics

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Bénédictine: living (and drinking) well is the best revenge

Bénédictine, which celebrates its 500th anniversary in 2010, has done both: It has lived well, having evolved from a bitter medicine formulated by French monks into a fancy after-dinner liqueur, and crammed two or three lives into its half-millennium history. Its latest life — as a rediscovered component in haute cocktails — is currently unfolding, particularly in New York City, where craft bartenders have latched onto the liqueur in much the same way they’ve taken up Chartreuse, another herbal, monastery-derived liqueur.

“It’s got serious street cred,” said Damon Dyer, a bartender at Louis 649 in the East Village, “and brings a certain something-something to a drink.”

That certain something-something comes from a blend of 27 herbs and spices that a monk named Dom Bernardo Vincelli distilled in 1510 at a Bénédictine monastery in Fécamp, France, in Normandy. Dom Vincelli’s Elixir, as it was called then, was a hit until the French Revolution, when the monastery was destroyed. In a Dan Brown-worthy plot twist, the recipe was lost until an art collector and wine merchant named Alexander Le Grand discovered it within a trove of old books he bought in 1863. After toying with the recipe, Le Grand began selling the elixir as Bénédictine — for pleasure, this time, rather than for medicinal reasons.

It was a minor player in the United States until the 1930s, when a brushfire of a drink called a B & B — equal parts Bénédictine and brandy, created at the “21” Club — swept the nation. The Le Grand family’s response was to bottle the cocktail itself, mixing Cognac with the liqueur and selling it as B & B.

B & B still outsells Bénédictine nine to one in the United States, according to a company spokesman, but it is the original undiluted product that has lately been stoking the curiosity of bartenders. As Mr. Dyer put it, “I don’t want my peanut butter and jelly in the same jar, you know?”

Mr. Dyer showcases it in a drink he calls a Monte Cassino, in which he mixes equal parts Bénédictine, lemon juice, yellow Chartreuse and 100-proof Rittenhouse rye whiskey. “I wanted to take a complex ingredient like Bénédictine and make a simple drink out of it,” he explained. “No bitters or esoteric infusions or egg whites or any other silliness.” Cocktail aficionados familiar with a cult drink called a Last Word will recognize the template here: a round, earthy cocktail in which a whole gamut of flavors — bitter, herbal, sweet, sour, spicy — are eerily balanced.

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