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Spirits: Happy birthday, Benedictine

By Jason Wilson
Wednesday, January 13, 2010; E05

Last week Sam's Club introduced, under its Member's Mark brand, a new vodka called Rue 33. According to the big-box chain, this is "ultra premium" vodka, "six times distilled and three times filtered." It is made in Cognac, France, just like Grey Goose, and the nebulous organization that calls itself the Beverage Tasting Institute has given it a 91 rating. (Caveat emptor: The BTI awarded the truly awful Starbuck's Coffee Liqueur a 94.)

True to Sam Club's form, this six-times-distilled, ultra-premium vodka will be sold in economy-size 1.75-liter bottles. Perhaps the Mayans were right: The world may indeed come to an end in 2012.

Then again, I occasionally see evidence that the apocalypse is not actually upon us, that civilization is not crumbling before our very eyes. For instance, I just opened a new bottle of Benedictine.

I see Benedictine as the exact opposite of Sam's Club vodka. First of all, 2010 marks the liqueur's 500th birthday. Ponder that the next time you're drinking a brand-new spirit, some artificially infused liqueur that was invented in a flavor lab 18 months ago. Second, Benedictine has flavor, unlike anything that has been distilled six times. Now, this flavor is a strange, ancient one and might not immediately be to everyone's liking. But at least it's a taste that knows what it wants to be.

Every liqueur seems to have a romantic back story, but Benedictine has what might be the granddaddy of them all. It is made with 27 plants and spices, from a secret recipe created by a Benedictine monk in 1510. The monk and the secret recipe are impressive enough, but there's also the drama of the recipe's disappearance when the monks were forced to flee during the French Revolution. Nearly a century passed before the secret recipe was discovered by Alexandre Le Grand, who consecrated the elixir to God as D.O.M. -- or Deo Optimo Maximo, "To God Most Good, Most Great" -- Benedictine.

Say what you will about the credibility of this story, particularly the recipe's disappearance and miraculous rediscovery. It's a hell of lot better than, say, a boardroom-driven tale that goes, "Let's create some booze we can sell two aisles over from the diapers and the kitty litter, in 1.75-liter containers, at the seemingly affordable yet actually ridiculous price point of $28."

Benedictine, stories aside, is an important part of any real home bar, and I recommend it every time someone asks me about stocking basics. What is it? Well, we know that it's one of the few cask-aged liqueurs in the world and that there's cognac, saffron, citrus, vanilla and, above all, honey in the mix. Its dominant flavors are gentle, but they coat the mouth with the honey and herbs most notably.

At around $35 a bottle, Benedictine, like many essential liqueurs such as Cointreau and Chartreuse, isn't cheap. But because this liqueur is not something you drink every day and keeps almost forever, it's worth the investment for your bar.

Benedictine has plenty of uses throughout the year beyond the classic brandy-and-Benedictine. Winter seems like the perfect time for its viscous, soothing herbal-honey pleasures. Mixed with yellow Chartreuse and Calvados, it creates one of the nicest after-dinner cocktails in the Widow's Kiss. One of my top-10 favorite cocktails is the Antibes, with gin, Benedictine and fresh grapefruit juice, perfect because we're smack in the middle of grapefruit season. And I love Benedictine standing in for sweet vermouth in a rye Manhattan variation called the Monte Carlo. That's not to say it's bad in the summertime; in fact, one light tipple that's a nice afternoon drink is the Queen Elizabeth, calling for two parts dry vermouth and one part each of Benedictine and lime juice, served straight up.

Lately, however, I've been looking for a fresh, martini-like cocktail for the winter, and I think I found one: the Acacia, which substitutes Benedictine for dry vermouth and then adds kirschwasser. It has a little more body and flavor than your classic dry martini. One more thing: Put only gin in this cocktail.

And no, I don't care that you have 1.74 liters of a new wholesale, ultra-premium vodka that you need to get rid of.

Recipe

Acacia Cocktail (new)

Widow's Kiss

Antibes

Monte Carlo

Wilson can be reached at food@washpost.com. Follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/boozecolumnist.

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