What does a working men’s club in Lancashire and one of the world’s oldest liqueurs have in common?
Benedicitine is one of the world’s oldest liqueurs. Made with a blend of 27 herbs and spices, it was in vogue during the Belle Epoque, post-Absinthe-crazy Paris, and lascivious opium dens of Edwardian London. So why is the distiller’s biggest customer now the Burnley Miners Social Club in Lancashire? Well, it has something to do with the Great War and the drink’s alleged soothing abilities. Watch the video below for the full story.
The history of the Benedictine is as rich as its colossal taste. Abbeys were expensive places to maintain, especially the huge one in Fecamp, Normandy, where the liqueur is made.
It was modelled on that French icon, the Notre Dame in Paris. Funds were needed and so France’s monarch, King Philip, advised his friend the Abbot of Fecamp to consider distilling an elixir, a restorative for those poor coughing consumptive locals, from which they could make a little bit of pocket money. It just so happened that the King knew just the man – monk extraordinaire Dom Bernardo Vincelli from Italy.
He got to work in his ecclesiastical laboratory in 1510, blending and distilling a heady mix of herbs and spices until he was satisfied. The recipe was written down in a huge book and kept under lock and key in Fecamp Abbey, alongside priceless relics.
For over 250 years the monks distilled their drink, until the angry mobs of the French Revolution threatened the religious status quo. Having reached Normandy, the revolting peasants were grabbing anything to help them topple the monarchy, so the monks buried their relics and the recipe book to protect them. The recipe and the distillation lay unseen for decades, until a wealthy entrepreneur called Alexandre le Grand bought a plot of land with some buildings near the beach in Fecamp. He also acquired a library in one of the buildings and, quietly browsing through the collection of books, stumbled upon the ancient tome that included the drink recipe, now some 350 years old.
He made an improvised mini distillery and set to work recreating the original recipe. Within three years he was selling bottles all over the world and it had brought him riches and success beyond measure. Around him he built the ornate distillery, known as Le Palais de Benedictine. This beautiful gothic building was converted into a hospital for those injured during the Great War of 1914-1918, and explains the link between Burnley Miners Social Club and Benedictine. The Palais offered Benedictine with hot water as a restorative to the patients, some of whom were soldiers from the East Lancashire regiment. The miners among them realised the soothing qualities on the respiratory system, which could be a great source of comfort for those with coal dust in their lungs, so they took the drink back to Lancashire and have sold thousands of litres of it at the Burnley Miners Social Club ever since – it’s known as Bene’n’hot and is even sold at Burnley FC during half-time.
Alexandre also built a museum for the relics unearthed with the recipe book, which is where I meet Benedictine’s resident archivist Sebastien to hear this incredible story. I’m shown original documents from King Philip, Alexandre’s doodles for the iconic bottle design, hundreds of hilarious ersatz versions of the bottle created by international wannabes, as well as those fascinating bits chiselled off saints. The palace is full of themed rooms and lookout towers, grandiose stained-glass windows and curios, but the distillery is equally as fascinating.
Benedictine’s ambassador, Ludo, is a super-suave Frenchman who talks us through the uses of the drink and the processes involved. Benedictine is made using those 27 herbs and spices, including mace, nutmeg, lemon balm, angelica, hyssop, cardamom and cinnamon.
Liquids from four the giant copper vats, each with a different set of macerating ingredients, are brought together into fermentation tanks where they are left to mature. After eight months or so, honey and saffron are added for sweetness and colour and left to develop over another year. At this stage some of the liquid is put in smaller casks for the “single cask” version, which is stunning.
After being twice-filtered and sent off for bottling in the south of France, the liqueur is ready to be distributed around the world – well, what’s left of it after those thirsty Lancashire men have had their quota.
Benedictine adds a glossy depth to cocktails, as well as Burnley’s beloved Bene’n’hot (essentially hot water, a measure of Benedictine and a slice of lemon). It is gorgeous in a Singapore sling and makes the most of bubbly in a Benediction, both of which Ludo creates in the video above, as well as a wonderful cocktail with some warming brandy too. With the weight of so much history, alchemy and flavour behind it, I reckon Benedictine is due for yet another well-deserved renaissance.