Bénédictine is based on brandy and neutral spirit and flavoured with 56 different herbs and spices including: hyssop, balm, juniper berries, angelica seeds, aloe, apricot, cinnamon, genepy, cloves, nutmeg, myrrh, pine cone, black tea, coriander, cardamom, mace, thyme, maidenhair fern, vanilla, lemon peel and honey. These botanicals, which are sun dried to preserve more of their flavour, are used in four different preparations – three using distillation and one using a maceration of lemon peel and vanilla in neutral alcohol for six months.
Of the three distilled preparations, two are double distilled and one is single distilled. The still room has a bewildering line up of tiny, old copper stills, many dating from the early 1900s, with the most modern being a replica made forty years ago. Those stills used for the first distillation have removable heads to allow cleaning and these dangle above their pots on pulley systems. The pot stills used for the second distillation are topped with short six plate columns surrounded by water cooling coils which serve to increase reflux within the column.
The four different preparations are aged independently before being blended, left to marry and further age. All the oak vats used are French Limousine and the whole maturation process lasts some two years.
The last part of the blending process is the addition of Argentinean honey and saffron. Both add to Bénédictine’s flavour while the saffron contributes to the liqueur’s distinctive yellow-amber hue. This liqueur has been made pretty much the same way since 1864 but somewhere along the way someone discovered that the best way to integrate the honey was to heat the blend to 55°C (131°F), allow it to cool and then heat again – that’s the way it is still done today.
I am amazed and delighted that the honey has not been substituted for the modern cheaper alternative of honey flavouring essence and sugar syrup. Even though Bénédictine is very sweet (equivalent to 300 grams of sugar per litre) it is only sweetened with honey and, unusually for a liqueur, absolutely no sugar is added – something its producers should be proud of.
Before Bénédictine is ready for bottling, it is rested for four months to allow the flavours to properly integrate and mellow.