What is B'n'dictine exactly? According to lore, no one really knows -- apart from three mysterious monks in Normandy sworn to secrecy. And probably Dan Brown. The biggest single consumer of B'n'dictine in the world is a miner's club in Burnley, Lancashire, where it's mixed with boiling water and called a B'n' 'n' Hot. British soldiers from the area developed a taste for it while serving in Normandy during World War I, which goes to prove that taste is just a function of circumstance and proximity. In New Orleans, it's the locally made Peychaud's bitters that accent Tennessee Williams's favorite tipple, the Vieux Carr' -- a combination of rye whiskey, cognac, vermouth, and B'n'dictine invented and still served at the Hotel Monteleone. Another famous gay writer, Somerset Maugham, was a disciple of a different B'n'dictine-tinged confection: the Singapore Sling, a long, cool drink intended for clammy colonial wives who took comfort in its pink hue.
I doubt that Sam, the chatty Aussie who works the bar at the excellent Little Branch in New York City, drank a whole lot of B'n'dictine in Melbourne, where he started, but like many of today's cocktail enthusiasts, he's learned to experiment. Tired of mixing drinks with flash-in-the-pan fruit juices like pomegranate and yuzu, they've pulled ancient liqueurs back into service, adding complexity and nuance to cocktails such as the Rolls-Royce, in which a half ounce of B'n'dictine is shaken with gin and sweet and dry vermouths. Sam throws in a hefty strip of lemon peel and pours it into a martini glass. There's a touch of caramel in the flavor and honeysuckle from the B'n'dictine, but also an astringent blast from the gin that saves the whole thing from being too sweet. I was served it after selecting Bartender's Choice from the menu and liked the experience so much that I've been asking other bartenders to duplicate the trick. At the Bowery Hotel in New York City, the charming Walter pulled out a bottle of B & B (B'n'dictine and brandy) and mixed it with Glenrothes -- an elegant Speyside whisky -- before adding a dash of bitters, some cayenne pepper, and lemon juice. Three vivacious English ladies were persuaded to order the same. It was pretty good, even if Tara, from Birmingham, was put in mind of hot toddies from her youth. Perhaps someone should export it to the Burnley miner's club.
B'n' There, Done That: Three B'n'dictine Recipes
1.5 ounces Plymouth gin 1 ounce sweet vermouth 1 ounce dry vermouth .5 ounce B'n'dictine Strip of lemon peel Fill a cocktail shaker halfway with ice, add ingredients, shake well, and strain into a martini glasses.
3 ounces Bombay Sapphire gin 3 tablespoons lemon juice Generous dash of sugar syrup 4 ounces ginger ale 1 ounce Heering cherry liqueur 1 ounce B'n'dictine Stir gin, lemon juice, and sugar syrup together. Divide into two highball glasses filled with ice, top with ginger ale, and carefully float the B'n'dictine and Heering on top.
The Vieux Carr'
1 ounce rye whiskey 1 ounce cognac 1 ounce sweet vermouth 1 teaspoon B'n'dictine 2 dashes Peychaud's bitters 2 dashes Angostura bitters Mix all ingredients over ice in a whiskey glass and stir.