In the next post in our series about French liqueurs we go herby, very herby actually: Bénédictine, Chartreuse, Crème de Menthe. Taking plants and spices as their base, herb-based French liqueurs include some of the world’s most complex recipes and best known tipples. From the sickly-sweet and oh-so-vintage Crème de Menthe to multi-coloured and very potent Chartreuse, herbs bring a whole world of flavours to French liqueurs.
Most good and most great: Bénédictine
The first in our list of herb-based French liqueurs needs no introduction. Bénédictine in its classic amber bottle marked with DOM and that red wax seal, forms an essential part of any self-respecting liqueur collection.
The herbal concoction doesn’t quite date back to the monks it’s named after, but Bénédictine certainly has history. Created by the religious order as a medicinal remedy at their monastery in Fécamp in Normandy in the 1500s, the recipe for the liqueur as we know it today was unearthed in 1863 by local wine merchant Alexandre le Grand. His creation of the famous Deo Optimo Maximo (DOM – ‘To God most good and most great’) is the one that fills our glasses today.
Secret recipe French liqueurs
Like the monks before him, le Grand kept the recipe for Bénédictine a secret. The mystery continues today and it’s such a closely guarded secret that no one other than the guardian knows the full list of ingredients or their measurements. Known components – all botanical – include juniper, coriander, clove, cinnamon, nutmeg and thyme as well as the three main ingredients: angelica, lemon balm and hyssop. Not one of the total 27 stands out in the final taste that’s best described as honey-like with a dash of spices and herbs.
The distillation process involves four different preparations, making this one of the most complex French liqueurs. From initial distillation to final bottling, Bénédictine takes up to two years to make and is 40 per cent proof.
How to drink Bénédictine
Traditionalists like their Bénédictine neat or served over one large ice cube. The liqueur also forms the base of many cocktails and is enjoying something of a revival in modern bars. Popular concoctions include the classic B&B (Bénédictine and brandy) and The Benediction where it’s mixed with orange bitters and topped with Champagne. You’ll also taste it in a Singapore Sling and Vieux Carré.
From green to yellow: Chartreuse
Chartreuse is next on our list of famous herb-based French liqueurs. Like Bénédictine, this liqueur was created by monks in a monastery in the French Alps for medicinal purposes. The liqueur goes back several centuries and its original recipe from 1650 refers to it as ‘The Elixir of Long Life’. Again like Bénédictine, the exact formula and list of ingredients remain top secret. Only two monks reputedly know how to make genuine Chartreuse liqueur.
It is known to contain at least 130 herbs and plants that are mixed together, distilled and then aged in oak casks for five years. The green version of Chartreuse is the stronger (55% proof). It has an intense, aromatic flavour with a strong floral scent and notes of cloves, cinnamon and citrus. Yellow Chartreuse comes in milder with ‘just’ 40% alcohol content. It has a strong citrus overtone with hints of honey, anis and liquorice.
Like armagnac and cognac, Chartreuse has a premium label. Known as VEP (Vieillissement Exceptionnellement Prolongé), this version has been aged for much longer and is highly prized among liqueur connoisseurs.
How to drink Chartreuse
Green Chartreuse – in its simplest form, this is a French liqueur to add to tonic or soda water with lots of ice. You can also use it as a base for a cocktail such as the Chartreuse Martini where it accompanies gin and dry vermouth.
Yellow Chartreuse – also makes a good cocktail ingredient and mixes particularly well with whisky. It also adds an interesting twist to coffee.
VEP Chartreuse – like all exceptional French liqueurs, this is one to drink neat, perhaps with a dash of ice.
After-dinner mint: Crème de Menthe
Crème de Menthe’s intense green colour and strong minty flavour both count as classics among the world’s most famous liqueurs. Whose grandparents didn’t have a bottle in their drinks cabinet? An essential part of the 1950s cocktail party scene and many children’s first introduction to alcohol, Crème de Menthe is making something of a comeback in modern bars.
Mint has long been known for its digestive properties so it’s no real surprise to find it in one of the world’s best-known liqueurs. The original mint liqueur was made with peppermint by Emile Giffard, a dispensing chemist in Angers in the Loire Valley. In his quest to create a soothing after-dinner digestif, Giffard concocted the Menthe Pastille. The digestive properties of the liqueur were so successful that Giffard converted his pharmacy into a distillery, still in existence today.
While Menthe Pastille is transparent, Crème de Menthe couldn’t be greener. But both share an intense minty taste and very similar ingredients. Compared to other herb-based French liqueurs, the list of ingredients is refreshingly short: just water, sugar, alcohol and extract of peppermint come together in this one. The green colouring (from the peppermint leaves or artificial) is an optional extra. And there’s absolutely no cream involved.
Unlike Bénédictine and Chartreuse, Crème de Menthe takes just a month between distillation and bottling, and because of that, has a much lower alcohol content. With 24%, it ranks as one of the least potent French liqueurs.
How to drink Crème de Menthe
The 1950s party mode calls for a small, tube-like glass. For an extra vintage feel, go for green-tinted glass. A refreshing summer version serves the mint liqueur over crushed ice. Two classic American cocktails both include Crème de Menthe. The Grasshopper mixes it with Crème de Cacao and cream. The Stinger adds it to cognac for the perfect New Yorker ‘one for the road’.
Bénédictine, Chartreuse, Crème de Menthe over to you
Dinner on board one of our luxury hotel barge cruises give you the chance to experience the best of French liqueurs, including Bénédictine, Chartreuse, Crème de Menthe, both as aperitifs and digestives. Book your trip now