Fact and fiction behind the bar
Near the Normandy coast in France stands the Bénédictine Distillery, which manufactures Bénédictine® liqueur. A visit to this particular distillery shaped Wayne Curtis's understanding of what makes a spirit or cocktail stand out among its peers. It's the story.
The Bénédictine® story, featured prominently on its website, goes like this:
“The incredible story of Bénédictine® began in 1510 in the Abbey of Fécamp, in Normandy, France, when the Benedictine monk, Dom Bernardo Vincelli, created a secret elixir that was to become famous for years to come.
Three hundred and fifty years later, in 1863, Alexandre Le Grand, a merchant and collector of religious art, discovered the lost recipe for this elixir in his collection. Intrigued by the discovery and after many attempts, he successfully recreated the mysterious liqueur that he called Bénédictine®.
Distilled and aged in a flamboyant palace, built in Fécamp in tribute to this unique liqueur, Bénédictine® is a subtle alchemy of 27 different plants and spices.”
The tale is exotic, serendipitous, and seemingly one-of-a-kind. Yet it brings to mind so many others boasted by breweries and distilleries across the South.
Consider Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery in Greenbrier, Tennessee.
A German soap and candle maker converts his savings to gold, sews that gold into his clothes, and sets sail with his family for America. He tragically goes overboard during a storm and “weighed down by the family fortune, [sinks] directly to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.” His fifteen-year-old son eventually begins distilling whiskey in Tennessee, but dies young, leaving the distillery in the hands of his wife until Prohibition forces her to shut down operations in 1909.
Enter brothers Andy and Charlie Nelson. The Nelsons visit Greenbrier Historical Society in the summer of 2006, where the curator shows them two original bottles of Nelson’s Green Brier Tennessee Whiskey.
“For a moment, time stood still. It was love at first sight. Charlie and Andy stared at the perfectly preserved bottles and then looked back at one another, knowing what the other was thinking: “This is our destiny.” With sincere conviction, they made a pact to bring the family whiskey business back to life. After three years of research, planning and hard work, the Nelsons re-formed the business that had closed exactly 100 years earlier in 1909 during Prohibition.”
That’s one heck of a story. Whether or not the facts check out—as far as we know, they do—is really beside the point.
Striking up a conversation with a stranger at a bar is accepted, even expected, explains Curtis. Whether it’s a fellow patron, a bartender, or the company producing the spirit you’re sipping, storytelling is a central part of that exchange.
The beverage industry is replete with these tales, from Templeton Rye (outed in Eric Felten’s 2014 exposé for exaggerating its artisanal status) to non-alcoholic drinks like Coca-Cola. The Sazerac legend wraps into one enticing story the origin of the New Orleans drink and of its key ingredient (Peychaud’s Bitters), its status as ‘world’s first cocktail,’ and even the etymology of the word ‘cocktail’ itself.
These stories are as carefully crafted as the beverages themselves. And, Curtis argues in this episode of Gravy, we risk losing an essential ingredient to our cocktail culture when we start to dismiss this fictional fancy in favor of bare-bones fact.
Wayne Curtis. And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails.
Robert Simonson. A Proper Drink: The Untold Story of How a Band of Bartenders Saved the Civilized Drinking World.
David Wondrich. Imbibe! Updated and Revised Edition: From Absinthe Cocktail to Whiskey Smash, a Salute in Stories and Drinks to “Professor” Jerry Thomas, Pioneer of the American Bar.
The Southern Foodways Alliance Guide to Cocktails. Available October 5, 2017. (Enjoy an excerpt here.)
Watch Chris McMillian recite Joshua Soule Smith’s “The Mint Julep.”
Marsaw profiles Martin Sawyer, bartender at the Omni Royal Orleans Hotel in New Orleans and winner of the SFA’s 2005 Ruth Fertel Keeper of the Flame Award.
*Cover photo by Andrew Thomas Lee
Wayne Curtis is a freelance journalist and writer. He writes about travel, architecture, history, and historic preservation for such publications as The Atlantic, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Bon Apetit, among others.