Bottle #17: Benedictine & Brandy (B & B)

May 24, 2023

Bottle #17 is a tiny bottle of B&B, which stands for Benedictine & Brandy. Benedictine is a French herbal liqueur and the story goes that in the early 1930s a bartender at the “21” Club Speakeasy in NYC started mixing it with brandy. The combination became so popular that the company decided to start bottling a pre-mixed version in 1937.

There’s not much else to say about B&B itself, and even though I suspect there might be a tiny bottle of actual Benedictine in the boxes, I’m going to tell you its story now. Because it’s a fun one.

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The recipe for Benedictine dates back to 1510, which means this liqueur got lots of press in 2010 as it celebrated its 500th birthday. According to its origin story, it was created by a Venetian monk called Dom Bernardo Vincelli at the Abbey of Fecamp in Normandy.

The elixir was apparently highly renowned. Until 1791, that is, when the Abbey of Fecamp was destroyed following the French Revolution and the monks were expelled. But on their way out, they passed their library – including the secret recipe – along to one of their trustees. Where it sat lost until 1863.

Then, in 1863, a local wine merchant in Fecamp named Alexandre Le Grand discovered a collection of manuscripts from the lost Abbey, which included a liqueur recipe. He decoded the recipe, recreated the elixir, named it Benedictine after the monks, and began selling it to the public, where it became wildly popular, first in France and then around the world.

At least, that’s how the story goes. And it’s the story you’ll read in all those 500th birthday stories. But Wikipedia claims that a descendent of Alexandre Le Grand admitted on a French documentary that Alexandre actually created the liqueur himself and told the story for marketing purposes.

However he got the recipe, he did produce it and make it into a worldwide sensation. He built the half-Renaissance/half-Gothic Palais de Benedictine in Normandy, which is both a distillery and showcase, and which claims to be the second most visited tourist attraction in the region. Le Grand’s descendants sold the company to Martini-Rossi in 1984, which was then purchased by Bacardi-Martini in 1992.

The recipe for Benedictine is a closely guarded secret, known by only 3 people at any given time. So many people have tried to reproduce it that the company has a “Hall of Counterfeits” on the grounds of the Palais Benedictine. Alexandre trademarked the unique bottle and label shape to try to preserve the integrity of the spirit.

That said, we do know a good bit about what’s in it. There are 27 botanicals, and people think they know 21 of them, though of course not the proportions. We know it uses saffron for coloring and honey for sweetening, and then a whole host of mundane botanicals like thyme, cinnamon and orange peel to more obscure ones like hyssop, myrrh and fir cones.

Early Benedictine would have been sipped on its own, until that clever barman at the 21 Club rolled out his creation in the 30s. Mine isn’t nearly that old, although when I saw the bottle I got really excited that it might have been older than most of the collection. It certainly looks old – the volume is labeled as 1/16 pint, which feels totally archaic. And based on the tax strip, this bottle could be from anywhere from 1940 to 1977. If it were a full-size bottle, I could pin it down to 1961 to 1977. That’s because for full size bottles, the requirement to print the size of the bottle at the end of the strips went away in 1961. But it stuck around until 1977 for minis. Maybe they had old strips they wanted to use up?

My bottle was imported by Julius Wile & Sons, a NYC wine and spirits importer. The company was sold to Nabisco in 1972, but Julius stuck around as CEO until 1978, so I don’t think I can make any dating assumptions based on that. So early to mid-70s for this one.

Watch me taste this bottle with Chris Hannah.

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Bottle #17: Benedictine & Brandy (B & B)

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Bottle #17 is a tiny bottle of B&B, which stands for Benedictine & Brandy. Benedictine is a French herbal liqueur and the story goes that in the early 1930s a bartender at the “21” Club Speakeasy in NYC started mixing it with brandy. The combination became so popular that the company decided to start bottling a pre-mixed version in 1937.

There’s not much else to say about B&B itself, and even though I suspect there might be a tiny bottle of actual Benedictine in the boxes, I’m going to tell you its story now. Because it’s a fun one.

The recipe for Benedictine dates back to 1510, which means this liqueur got lots of press in 2010 as it celebrated its 500th birthday. According to its origin story, it was created by a Venetian monk called Dom Bernardo Vincelli at the Abbey of Fecamp in Normandy.

The elixir was apparently highly renowned. Until 1791, that is, when the Abbey of Fecamp was destroyed following the French Revolution and the monks were expelled. But on their way out, they passed their library – including the secret recipe – along to one of their trustees. Where it sat lost until 1863.

Then, in 1863, a local wine merchant in Fecamp named Alexandre Le Grand discovered a collection of manuscripts from the lost Abbey, which included a liqueur recipe. He decoded the recipe, recreated the elixir, named it Benedictine after the monks, and began selling it to the public, where it became wildly popular, first in France and then around the world.

At least, that’s how the story goes. And it’s the story you’ll read in all those 500th birthday stories. But Wikipedia claims that a descendent of Alexandre Le Grand admitted on a French documentary that Alexandre actually created the liqueur himself and told the story for marketing purposes.

However he got the recipe, he did produce it and make it into a worldwide sensation. He built the half-Renaissance/half-Gothic Palais de Benedictine in Normandy, which is both a distillery and showcase, and which claims to be the second most visited tourist attraction in the region. Le Grand’s descendants sold the company to Martini-Rossi in 1984, which was then purchased by Bacardi-Martini in 1992.

The recipe for Benedictine is a closely guarded secret, known by only 3 people at any given time. So many people have tried to reproduce it that the company has a “Hall of Counterfeits” on the grounds of the Palais Benedictine. Alexandre trademarked the unique bottle and label shape to try to preserve the integrity of the spirit.

That said, we do know a good bit about what’s in it. There are 27 botanicals, and people think they know 21 of them, though of course not the proportions. We know it uses saffron for coloring and honey for sweetening, and then a whole host of mundane botanicals like thyme, cinnamon and orange peel to more obscure ones like hyssop, myrrh and fir cones.

Early Benedictine would have been sipped on its own, until that clever barman at the 21 Club rolled out his creation in the 30s. Mine isn’t nearly that old, although when I saw the bottle I got really excited that it might have been older than most of the collection. It certainly looks old – the volume is labeled as 1/16 pint, which feels totally archaic. And based on the tax strip, this bottle could be from anywhere from 1940 to 1977. If it were a full-size bottle, I could pin it down to 1961 to 1977. That’s because for full size bottles, the requirement to print the size of the bottle at the end of the strips went away in 1961. But it stuck around until 1977 for minis. Maybe they had old strips they wanted to use up?

My bottle was imported by Julius Wile & Sons, a NYC wine and spirits importer. The company was sold to Nabisco in 1972, but Julius stuck around as CEO until 1978, so I don’t think I can make any dating assumptions based on that. So early to mid-70s for this one.

Watch me taste this bottle with Chris Hannah.

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