Build-A-Bar: Benedictine

Everybody likes a little hot Monk-on-Monk action. Right?
Everybody likes a little hot Monk-on-Monk action. Right?
Photo by Nicholas L. Hall

I don't remember when I first heard of Bénédictine, but I know it was in relation to my dad. He is, on occasion, a man of odd tastes. He has an inordinate and abiding love of Early Times whiskey ("It was good enough for Walker Percy"), and he prides himself on his fondness for the plonk that seems to discharge yearly from what he calls "the Great Wine Lake." He and my wife share a joke about those bottles - united by naming conventions centered around trees, birds, bodies of water, and topography, trying to one-up each other with their latest discoveries of "Crane Lake for $4 a bottle!" or "Ash Canyon Falls, 3 for 10!"

Over the years, I remember occasional mentions of "B&B" as a particular favorite of my dad's. Given his peculiar alcoholic temperament, you might forgive me for being a bit dubious about the drink, both before and after I was old enough to experience it for myself. Consider me a convert, with apologies to my dad.

Basically, if you like Chartreuse, you'll like Bénédictine. Both have origins in the cloistered secrets of boozy monks, though Bénédictine is no longer made by the robed ones from whom it takes its name. Both are herbal liqueurs, displaying a strikingly similar array of earthy and vegetal flavors and aromas. Both are fairly sweet, making a light touch important in crafting cocktails around these enigmatic spirits.

Anywhere you would use Chartreuese, Bénédictine will work as well. Bénédictine is perhaps a bit less intense than Chartreuse, and probably a bit sweeter. Cutting the sweet, heady flavor with citrus is always a good idea. Spiciness works well with the herbals, and bitters cut through all the excess, while echoing the earthier components of the liqueur. In deciding which classic cocktail to use as an example, I was pretty set on a Vieux Carré, which showcases the liqueur's bracing profile without beating you over the head with sweetness, and is a terrific cocktail. Then, I read a recent Gourmet article by David Wondrich, a sort of alcoholic Rorschach test, and settled on the Widow's Kiss. Because I enjoy displaying my deep personality flaws in a public forum.

Widow's Kiss

  • 1.5 oz. Calvados
  • .75 oz. Chartreuse (Yellow is technically correct, but I had green, so. . .)
  • .75 oz. Benedictine
  • 2 Dashes Angostura bitters

Combine all ingredients over ice in mixing glass. Stir well, then strain into a cocktail glass. Cherry garnish optional.

This is a bit of a sweet drink, but well-balanced nonetheless. The flavors all work very well together, the Chartreuse and Bénédictine providing a synergy of earthy, herbal complexity and somehow avoiding redundancy, Calvados providing some oomph, and Angostura playing the peacemaker. It's a great drink with which to close a celebration, especially with the weather pretending toward winter. For my money, a Vieux Carré is almost certainly a better drink, but doesn't have nearly the "stump the bartender" asshole potential. And that's what craft cocktails are all about, right?

For my take on Bénédictine, I wanted something spicy and assertive, to stand shoulder to shoulder with the liqueur. At the same time, I wanted to cut through all those forward flavors, making a drink that would be immediately approachable. So I reached for Rye, whose swaggering character would easily match the Bénédictine. My love of The Last Word cocktail told me that lime would freshen things up, balancing out the voluminous bloom of the Bénédictine, and making for an immediately gripping cocktail. Though it wasn't intentional, I may have subconsciously settled on the addition of a barspoon of Maraschino for the same reasons.

A dash of celery bitters added additional balance, and helped reinforce the green, vegetal character of the liqueur, and the spiciness of the Rye. Going where you can't follow, I also added a dash of my Nước Mắm Bitters, which brought in a depth of flavor and sneaky savoriness that simultaneously countered and buoyed all of the other flavors. Spicy, fruity, fresh, herbal, and intriguing.

The Name of the Rose

  • 1.5 oz. Rye
  • .5 oz. Bénédictine
  • .5 oz. Lime Juice
  • Barspoon Maraschino Liqueur
  • Dash Celery Bitters
  • Dash Nước Mắm Bitters (Substitute Peychaud's)

Combine all ingredients over ice in mixing glass. Shake hard, and strain into cocktail glass.

At first, I thought that perhaps I had too much lime juice. As I sipped, though, the other ingredients came forward, allowing the citrus to provide an initial burst of brightness before they stole the show. The drink morphs a bit, your palate rotating through its cast of characters as each comes into focus, while always maintaining a consistent and balanced taste. I'm going to fiddle with this further, to see what effect slight tweaks to ratio would have. As it is, this is a satisfying, drinkable, and nuanced cocktail.

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