The Secret Ingredient

Liquor companies love to claim they use closely guarded, centuries-old recipes. usually it’s just marketing.

The original recipe for Benedictine liqueur was discovered in a 16th-century alchemist’s notebook—or so I was told by my tour guide at the Benedictine distillery in Fécamp, France. That notebook, in turn, had been associated with the Benedictine monks, who she said had helped devise the recipe. Any chance that I might glimpse this exalted tome? “No, it’s not here,” the guide said. “The location is a secret that nobody knows. We just know that it’s in a safe place.”

The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Mixing Drinks echoes the company line, reporting that Benedictine is made by an “order of monks … faithfully following a recipe formulated in 1510.” In fact, Benedictine was developed by the wealthy industrialist Alexandre Le Grand in the 19th century, and may or may not be based on some centuries-old recipe. Regardless, no monk has come near the brand since the French Revolution.

In part because liquor makers aren’t required to list their main ingredients on labels, legends and fables rush in to fill the void. These legends, moreover, don’t typically arise through generations of storytelling: rather, they’re manufactured for use in marketing campaigns and on distillery tours. Certain tropes are all but inevitable on such tours. A spirit is linked to royalty or a famous personage. (Chambord, a raspberry liqueur, is said to be based on a drink favored by Louis XIV—although, as a guide admitted to me, “it’s difficult to find the paperwork.”) A top-secret formula is usually involved, known only to a small cabal. (At the Angostura bitters plant in Trinidad, I was told that only three people alive hold a key to the room where the barks and spices are mixed.) And each company invariably has a wall of shame, where inferior, would-be imitations are displayed in a sort of product perp walk. (At Benedictine, the pretenders include Balzactine and Benedictini.)

The mystery and lore enshrouding distilled spirits is particularly absurd nowadays, when libations can be parsed at the molecular level. “Big spirits makers have chemists on staff, and if they’re worth a damn, there’s not a whole lot that you can keep secret,” says the chemist T. A. Breaux. And he should know: in 2000, he began analyzing samples of vintage absinthe, using mass spectrometry and gas chromatography, until he could determine precisely what the old bottles contained. As it turned out, absinthe’s ingredients weren’t nearly as harmful as had been assumed a century earlier, when the liquor was banned in the U.S. and much of Europe. Thanks to Breaux—who is now enjoying a successful second career as an absinthe maker—the aromatic spirit is back on the shelves.

Determining the exact processes used to extract flavor from a liquor’s various ingredients can be trickier. “You can do steam distillation, maceration, or ethanolic distillation,” Breaux says, and the tastes of the resulting products will vary widely. But he adds that here, too, chemical analysis can crack the code. “Anything can be resolved eventually, depending on one’s determination,” Breaux says. He cites Chartreuse and Campari—two liqueurs whose ingredients are guarded with particular secrecy—as examples of products he could probably figure out if he so chose.

But why would he? As Breaux points out, even if he were to determine the exact formula for Chartreuse or Campari, it’s not as though customers would come clamoring for his imitations. The makers of the originals are “going to outspend me in marketing,” he says. Breaux notes that the best-selling spirit globally is vodka, behind which there are no significant production secrets at all. It’s essentially pure ethanol; the main added ingredient is marketing.

Yet in visits to dozens of distilleries over the years, I’ve discovered one thing: a healthy measure of mythology actually makes for a better-tasting product. Never mind the mouth or nose as the chief receptors of flavor. Sometimes, imagination and suggestion trump all. I always liked the dusky, medicinal complexity of Benedictine, but I’ve liked it all the more since I spent time at the production facility, housed in a replica of a late-15th-century palace. After being crammed full of stories and lore, I visited the tasting room. And there, sipping slowly, I was pretty sure I could discern the handiwork of monks.