Who would ever have thought that the church could have such an influence on what we drink today and that a liqueur originally created in the 1500s would still be consumed around the world 500 years later?
This extraordinary liqueur is Bénédictine. Created in 1510 by a Venetian monk called Dom Bernardo Vincelli who lived at the Abbey of Fécamp in Normandy, the liqueur was first consumed as a medicinal elixir and reviving tonic. The rich and intricate blend of 27 plants and spices earned praise and admiration from impressive connoisseurs including François I of France (1515- 1547) who is reputed to have claimed on tasting the liqueur during a visit to Fécamp: 'On my word as a gentleman! I have never tasted better!'
At the end of the late 18th century after the French Revolution, the Abbey of Fécamp was destroyed in 1791 and DOM Bernardo's precious secret recipe appeared to have been lost forever.
Our story then jumps several decades to 1863 when a local wine merchant in Fécamp called Alexandre Le Grand discovered a collection of manuscripts saved from the Abbey's destruction by a distant relative. Within the collection of papers, he discovered a notebook containing what appeared to be a liqueur recipe. With his curiosity aroused, the set about deciphering the notes and sourcing the ingredients to recreate the recipe himself. Once Alexandre believed he had recreated the recipe as faithfully as he could to Dom Bernardo's original, he decided to sell the liqueur to the public. In tribute to the creator of the liqueur, the liqueur was named Bénédictine after the monastic order of Dom Bernardo Vincelli and the bottle also features the Latin motto of the Bénédictine order - 'Deo Optimo Maximo' meaning 'to God, the good, the great' as well as the coat of arms of Fécamp Abbey.
The liqueur quickly became very popular in France and around the world and by 1864 had already sold 28,000 bottles. Ten years later, production had reached almost 150,000 bottles. Alexandre decided to protect the integrity of his liqueur by officially registering trademarks on the unique bottle and label shape, crest and name - suing anyone who tried to copy it ensuring that consumers would not be able to find inferior imitations of Bénédictine. Alexandre then decided to create a building to house his distillery as well as his ever expanding collection of religious artefacts. Construction began in 1882 and the building was first inaugurated in 1888 - however it was completely destroyed by fire 4 years later - though luckily the cellars and the distillery were spared. Dumfounded at this disaster, Alexandre Le Grand declared 'Bénédictine is not dead, and I shall prove it.' Building work began again in 1893 and was completed in 1900. This extraordinary building became known as Le Palais Bénédictine. Sadly Alexandre did not live to see his dream finally realised as he passed away in 1898.
A flamboyant gothic structure, Le Palais Bénédictine is situated in the small fishing port of Fécamp, Normandy close to the site of the original abbey. To this day, it is still the working distillery where Bénédictine is produced, and visitors can see the copper pot stills, the herb room and an impressive collection of over 200 counterfeit bottles is on display. Early publicity posters from the 1900's and the 'Belle Époque' period are also exhibited. There is also a vast assortment of religious artefacts acquired by Alexandre Le Grand dating back to the 17th and 18th centuries such as illustrated prayer books and religious manuscripts, sculptures, paintings, wax seals as well as elaborate ivory carvings. This utterly fascinating landmark also contains a modern art gallery which frequently exhibits work of well known artists and sculptors such as Marc Chagall and Nicki de Saint Phalle. The Palais Bénédictine is the second most visited tourist attraction in Normandy (after Monet's Garden in Giverny) welcoming 150,000 visitors each year.
So, next time you have a bottle of Bénédictine in your sights, don't let the opportunity pass by and enjoy the rich and intricate taste of five centuries of excellence...
For more information on how Bénédictine is made click here.
For your chance to win Bénédictine, click here.