Cocktails and Spirits with Paul Clarke: Benedictine Turns 500

Cocktails and Spirits with Paul Clarke

Weekly insight into the world of drinks with Paul Clarke from the Cocktail Chronicles and Imbibe magazine.

In an era when new brands of vodka and tequila pop up like dandelions in an untended yard (only to wither and fail in a year or two) it's refreshing to see a spirit that tracks its history in terms of centuries rather than market quarters.

As Jason Wilson notes in today's Washington Post, this year marks the 500th anniversary of the creation of Benedictine, one of the most distinctive liqueurs in the bar.

Created as an herbal medicine by a Benedictine monk named Dom Bernardo Vincelli in France in 1510, Benedictine has a dramatic history. Enjoyed for generations as an elixir for longevity, the spirit's recipe was lost when the monastery was destroyed during the French Revolution, only to be rediscovered in a cache of old books purchased by an art collector and wine merchant in 1863.

The long list of ingredients is a tightly guarded secret, but the liqueur is known to contain cognac, saffron, vanilla and honey. Commonly mixed with brandy, Benedictine is also an essential ingredient in a host of classic and contemporary cocktails, ranging from a New Orleans standard such as the Vieux Carre and the rich and ethereal Widow's Kiss to flavorful modern-day drinks such as the Monte Cassino, from Damon Dyer at Louis 649 in New York. Wilson lists Benedictine as an essential element in any home bar, and professional bartenders are equally generous with their praise.

In his recent "Shaken & Stirred" column for the New York Times, Jonathan Miles quotes Dyer: "We don't always need to reach for the newest, shiniest, flashiest-labeled product on the shelf. Shiny and new aren't always better."

And for an article I wrote for Imbibe in 2008 that covered the liqueur, Seattle bartender Murray Stenson told me that liqueurs such as Benedictine and Chartreuse—also created centuries ago by an order of French monks—were "the best thing that ever came out of organized religion."

Typically priced around $35, Benedictine isn't cheap, but since most recipes call for it in small quantities, a bottle will last years for most home bartenders.

I consider myself a big Benedictine fan, and always keep an extra bottle on hand since replacements can sometimes be hard to find locally. Are you a fan too? What are your favorite ways to enjoy it?