Bénédictine liqueur is believed to have first been formulated in 1510 by Dom Bernardo Vincelli, a keen botanist and Bénédictine monk at the Abbey of Fécamp on the Normandy coast in northern France. His elixir attracted considerable attention and in 1524, François I of France travelled to Fécamp to sample it.
Endorsed with a royal seal of approval, the Bénédictine monks of the Abbey of Fécamp continued to make their secret elixir for almost three centuries until its production, and their life of contemplation, was interrupted by the French Revolution (1789-1792). The abbey was destroyed and the monks fled for their lives. Aware that their precious scriptures were also in danger, the fathers gifted their library to benefactors, including Prosper Couillard, a trustee of the abbey.
The books lay hidden and forgotten for nearly a century when in 1863, Prosper Couillard grandson, Alexandre Le Grand, a collector of religious art, was looking through the holy manuscripts he had inherited. Among these he discovered a book on alchemy which included the formula for Dom Bernardo Vincelli’s long lost, but still renowned, elixir.
The recipe Le Grand discovered (it is now held in a vault in Geneva) was not then regarded as a particularly pleasurable drink. Like medicine today, such elixir was not expected to taste good. As the most educated of their day, monks were often regarded as being doctors and people purchased their concoctions in the belief they would help cure their diseases. The delicious liqueur we enjoy today is a result of Le Grand reformulating and adapting Vincelli’s original recipe.
Alexandre Le Grand’s name literally translates as ‘Mr Big’, and his family were just that. They had made their fortune as successful wine and spirits merchants who exported products to Europe and the New World through the busy docks at Fécamp – otherwise regarded throughout the 19th century, and much of the 20th, as the main French port for cod.
Liqueurs were immensely fashionable with the gentry during the 19th century, especially concoctions based on precious herbs and spices. Still relatively expensive today, spices from the new world were then far beyond the average person’s pocket. Nutmeg, for example, would be carried by wealthy gentleman with silver graters so they could show off their wealth by grating the precious spice over their beer. Le Grand knew he was onto something and used his considerable influence and assets to develop the liqueur.
Le Grand trademarked Bénédictine in 1864, incorporating the Bénédictine monks motto through the acronym D.O.M. – short for Deo Optimo Maximo, meaning ‘To God, infinitely good, infinitely great’. This not only reinforced the liqueur’s monastic origins but was a stroke of marketing genius. He also spent a great deal of time considering the perfect bottle shape – a copy of a letter Le Grand wrote on the 4th of March 1864 with a line drawing of its shape, addressed to his bottle manufacturer is among the papers still held at the distillery. The final design of the bottle was then trademarked one month later, the 4th of April 1864. The bottle shape remains unchanged from that line drawing to this day.
Le Grand adopted a thoroughly modern marketing strategy for his brand, using colourful artistic billboards in strategic busy junctions, particularly close to where travellers would board ships and trains. So successful was he that in 1882 he further cemented his brand’s monastic connection by building offices and a distillery on the site of the former Abbey. Fittingly, and again with a view to marketing, the architecture resembled an opulent abbey.
The distillery, and particularly the manual production line, employed a great deal of local townsfolk, with the exception of two particular men who had a reputation as drunkards. Resentful of Le Grand and annoyed that he would not employ them, on the night of 11th January 1892 the two set fire to the workshop of Le Grand’s ‘abbey’. The distillery was burnt to the ground and all was lost, including most of the company’s records. The next day, the board met and detailed minutes discussing the fire were recorded in a new journal opened – again, this is held at the distillery to this day.
The perpetrators of the crime were caught and sent to the notorious Bagne prison. And Le Grande’s family, not wanting to appear to have been put down by the catastrophe, decided to rebuild the Palais Bénédictine – and to make it bigger and even more fantastically opulent than the original. Designed by one of the most famous Parisian architects of the time, the new abbey was built in a lavish mingling of Baroque and Gothic styles. As well as a grand distilling hall, the vast interior included chambers, halls and even a chapel – all embellished with monastic carvings and artefacts. Completed in 1900, this extravagant edifice dominates the small town and remains the home of Bénédictine to this day.
Le Grand’s decendents sold Bénédictine to Martini-Rossi in 1984, which in turn became part of Bacardi-Martini in 1992. Although the family are no longer connected to Bénédictine, Madame Le Grand, the great-great-granddaughter of Alexandre Le Grand, now in her 80s, still lives in the splendid house immediately to the left of the distillery.