Medicinal, holy and alcoholic? Yes please!


Vintage Benedictine poster

Vintage poster for my tipple of choice

It’s a cold, damp November night. There’s a fire in the wood-burning stove, a dog dozing on the floor, and I’m sipping my version of a hot toddy: fresh lemon juice, honey, hot water and my tipple of choice: Bénédictine. I fell in love with this sweet liqueur after visiting the old monastery where it’s been made, according to some accounts, for more than 500 years.

The Bénédictine Abbey of Fécamp in Normandy was one of the first places I visited in France, eight years ago. I took a tour of the abbey, complete with a tasting at the end, particularly enjoying Bénédictine mixed with grapefruit juice.

I walked through the exhibits and felt the weight of 500 years of history, and the virtue of monks through the ages who first created this drink as a medicinal elixir. The exhibits showed many of the herbs that were used in the original recipe, with descriptions of all the ills they could cure.

Benedictine label

If monks make it, it must be good for you.

Each bottle of Bénédictine includes the initials D.O.M. on the label, which means Deo Optimo Maximo: “For our best, greatest God”. I’m not a Christian, but I feel more virtuous when I drink this holy, golden nectar.

I like a bit of Bénédictine when I’m coming down with a cold. This requires me to ignore my better judgment, as I’m pretty sure alcohol isn’t the best choice when I’m ill. But I pretend that I’m an old lady from an old country: my grandmother said her Polish mom gave her and her sister blackberry brandy when they were ill. An ex-boyfriend’s Yugoslavian grandfather gave me all manner of liquor when I showed up one Thanksgiving with a small burn on my hand, the result of a tragic herbal tea incident. My hand healed nicely … probably because of the booze.

The Bénédictine drinker is a lonely drinker

I have come to realize that I may be among a small group of people who actually enjoys Bénédictine. If it’s found at a bar, it’s likely to be in the form of B&B: Bénédictine and Brandy. The story goes that, in the 1930s, a New York bartender mixed Bénédictine with brandy to make a drier drink (Bénédictine is very sweet), and eventually the makers of Bénédictine packaged and sold that drink as B&B. I’ve asked for straight-up Bénédictine at a number of establishments and watched in slight embarrassment as the young bartenders searched the huge collection of liquors. Sometimes they searched for an interminable time, then got a look of satisfaction and relief, reaching for a dusty bottle at the back of the display, the label faded and the lid sugared on from disuse.

After years of enjoying the myth of Bénédictine ‘s religious and medicinal pedigree, I’ve discovered it’s now produced by Bacardi. This certainly destroys some of the mystique, but I choose to ignore this and hold fast to the Bénédictine of old — curer of ills and bringer of virtue.

What do you drink when you’re under the weather?

Tell me: do you have a favourite drink when you’re under the weather? If you’re someone who follows modern medical advice and avoids alcohol when you’re ill, please allow me to stay in my fantasy world of virtuous, health-giving booze. But if you, too, have a weakness for a tipple when you’re sick, write and tell me so I can try it.

Happy drinking during this cold and flu season!

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