Spirits & Liqueurs Liqueur

What the #$@! Do I Do with This? Benedictine: What It Is and How to Use It.

Three cocktails for this holy spirit.

Benedictine illustration
Image:

Liquor.com / Laura Sant

You bought a spirit or liqueur because a cocktail recipe called for a very minute amount. Now you’re stuck with the remaining 9/10ths of the bottle and what to do with it. No worries. Bartenders weigh in with tips and recipes for getting every last drop out of an underutilized ingredient so it doesn’t gather dust on your bar shelf.

Like Chartreuse, Benedictine has a backstory that links it, however tenuously, with a monastery. But while the former liqueur has been produced by monks since 1764, Benedictine’s origins lie in the handiwork of wine merchant Alexandre Le Grand. After creating its formula with the help of a chemist, the savvy marketer bamboozled the public with a romantic tale of the liqueur stemming from a recipe from the order of the Abbey of Fecamp in Normandy, lost in the ashes of the French Revolution. Très poetique.

What is verifiable, however, is that the recipe for Benedictine is a closely guarded trade secret, known by only a handful of people at one time. It contains 27 herbs and spices, including saffron, cinnamon, fir cones and juniper, but six of its ingredients remain unknown. 

Several macerations are distilled and blended, then the cognac-based liqueur is aged and finished with honey. It can be consumed neat or mixed into cocktails such as the Bobby Burns, Chrysanthemum and, most famously, Vieux Carré. If you’ve been blessed with a bottle of your own, you’ll find it to be a delightfully complex and pleasantly sweet addition to drinks.

“Benedictine is a rich, aromatic, floral and herbaceous liqueur that has notes of baking spices, honey and a whisper of orange peel,” says Jason Sorbet, the beverage director at The Chloe in New Orleans. “It has a very silky, velvety texture, which makes it a great addition for cocktails that are lacking a little weight.” 

Sorbet says it can lift the vanilla, cinnamon and maple notes found in many whiskeys, which is why he likes it so much in one of his favorite cocktails, the rye-based A La Louisiane, as well as in his Abbey Toddy with bourbon. Less expected is the liqueur’s affinity for the baked agave and citrus flavors found in tequila and mezcal, which complement Benedictine’s tones of honey, lemon balm and angelica root. But the liqueur’s intense sweetness means that sometimes a judicious use is best, especially for newbies—a barspoon goes a long way. Try treating it as an aperitif topped with tonic water and garnished with a lemon twist, he suggests.

Zyren Mae Posadas, the senior food and beverage manager at FireLake Chicago, also believes Benedictine, which is matured for up to 17 months before bottling, best matches whiskey’s barrel-aged notes and spices. She uses it in a heady daisy with white grapefruit, lemon and orange juices, and jasmine tea honey syrup. (Tea is also among the liqueur’s botanicals.)

“Benedictine is full-bodied, multilayered, honeyed, spiced and delicately herbal,” says Shaun Dixon, a bartender at 200 South, Taco Agave and Blend Lounge, all in Pensacola, Florida. “It plays off flavors that are sturdy enough to maintain their agency when paired with its relatively bold flavor profile.” Pairing it with dark spirits, brandy, sherry, citrus fruits (including the peels and oil), sage, stone fruits and baking spices all give great results, he says.

Dixon compares it to a less aggressive, more forgiving Drambuie, with a depth of its profile countered by a relative lightness. And like other bottles of its type, its perceived appeal as a niche product, only accessible to spirits geeks or a detached group of enthusiasts, may be its biggest hurdle to overcome. In reality, its complexity leads to unexpected pairing surprises, like his Japanese-winter-solstice-inspired Tōji Moon, made with sake, yuzu and an earthy red-bean syrup. 

“Its history and the mystery behind its creation are great narratives to build curiosity and openness with bar guests,” says Dixon. When choosing how to use it in cocktails, he says, “The most fruitful approach is the most old-school: Just get in there and mess around.”

  • Abbey Toddy

    Abbey Toddy

    Liquor.com / Tim Nusog

    "Benedictine’s rich honey and baking spices shine in this drink,” says Sorbet. “With a high-rye and high-proof bourbon to add backbone, the Benedictine is center stage with its honey, clove, orange peel and saffron notes, while the bourbon complements it with vanilla, maple and rye bread flavors.” A few dashes of Angostura bitters serve to accentuate all that spice.

    Get the recipe.

  • DOM Benedictine

    DOM Benedictine cocktail

    Liquor.com / Tim Nusog

    “To me, Benedictine is very unique, unlike any other liqueur out there,” says Posadas. Here, she shakes it with three types of citrus juice and a fragrant syrup made by steeping jasmine tea in hot water and honey. The drink’s name is a nod to the abbreviation used by monks of the Benedictine order to signify “Deo Optimo Maximo” (“to God, most good, most great”), which the liqueur’s creator, Alexandre, used on the label to solidify the myth of his product having holy origins.

    Get the recipe.

  • Tōji Moon

     Tōji Moon cocktail

    Liquor.com / Tim Nusog

    In Japan, the winter solstice, known as tōji, is observed by sitting in yuzu-infused baths and eating auspicious foods such as red beans and lotus root. “This cocktail combines the snowy appearance and velvety texture of Nigori sake with dark and herbal Benedictine, tart and bittersweet yuzu marmalade and the nutty depth of adzuki red beans,” says Dixon. 

    Get the recipe.