Secret Spirits for Halloween
By Jim Clarke
the only drink with a secret recipe. In fact, the “liqueur”
shelf in any bar is filled with mysterious draughts, often
made from a simple base liquor but imbued with a complex
mix of ingredients that has kept them from being duplicated
by other companies. Several of them are rich, bittersweet,
and perfect for autumn, when their warming effects serve
as an Indian summer for the palate.
Rebellious Scottish Spirit
the royal treatment, pour yourself a wee dram of Drambuie.
Eighteenth century aristocracy was all about secrets and
deception – think Dangerous Liaisons –
so it should come as no surprise that many nobles also had
a secret liqueur recipe to perk them up after a long day
of hidden mistresses, betrayals, and duels. In 1745, Scotland’s
Charles Edward Stuart, a.k.a. Bonnie Prince Charlie, was
on the run. His last Highland fling at rebelling against
England had failed, and he fled to the Isle of Skye. He
hid there with the MacKinnon family for some time before
eventually escaping to France. Out of gratitude for their
protection, he entrusted them with a secret: the recipe
for his personal “eau de vie” – “water
of life” for the people who had saved his own life.
While the MacKinnons never revealed the Prince’s
secret recipe, in 1870s they finally shared the drink itself
with the public, selling at the local Broadford Inn under
the Drambuie name (from the Gaelic “an dram buidleach,”
which means “the drink that satisfies”). In
1900 Malcolm MacKinnon moved to Edinburgh and entered the
whisky business, and in 1909 he bottled the first of his
special liqueur to give himself a leg up on the competition.
Aside from a few hints – scotch, heather honey, herbs,
saffron – the company remains extremely timid about
the contents of their liqueur.
Drambuie drinks well on its own or on the rocks. It’s
moderately sweet, with the herbal flavors rounded out by
touches of clove and nutmeg, finishing with a clean note
of cinnamon. It appears in a few classic cocktails –
most notably the Rusty Nail – and recently spawned
two spin-offs, a cream liqueur called Sylk
and a drier, more smoky version called Drambuie
Black Ribbon, which uses 15-Year-Old single malt
scotch as a base. If you want to salute the Celtic origins
of Halloween, any of these will give you a touch of that
old Highland spirit.
A More Spiritual Spirit
Prince Charlie probably developed his taste for eau de vie
in France, where he spent much of his young life. Monks
there and elsewhere had been distilling and infusing spirits
for centuries, a skill they learned from studying Moorish
texts. “Water of life” well represents the original
intent of their potions: the alcoholic base was the powerful
delivery system for the herbs, spices, and fruit essences
that were intended to cure your ills and maintain your health.
In France, a Benedictine monk named Don Bernardo Vincelli
at the Abbey of Fécamp developed an eau de vie using
27 herbs and spices from around the world which his order
continued to make until the French Revolution.
As the French Revolution beheaded the aristocracy, it also
attacked the Church for collaborating with their oppressors.
Vincelli’s recipe would have been lost, except one
local bought a copy of one of the Abbey’s 16th century
manuscript for his collection. It was only in 1863 that
a distant relation, Alexander Le Grand, took a closer look
at the manuscript and deciphered the recipe. He recreated
and marketed the liqueur, which is known today as Benedictine
for its monkish origins.
Benedictine is less herbal than Drambuie, with citrus aromas
floating over a base of vanilla, cardamom, and sandalwood.
It’s mildly sweet, with a clean finish. The makers
are slightly more open about its contents, which include
familiar names such as saffron, cinnamon, and cardamom as
well as more obscure materials like hyssop and ambrette.
A bartender at New York’s 21 Club came up with the
cocktail “B & B” by blending Benedictine
with brandy; today that mix is available pre-bottled; the
makers use an aged cognac in their blend to make a smoother,
drier child of the original Benedictine.
A Wandering Spirit
Another elixir beloved by a royal has only recently become
widely available in the U.S.: Unicum –
the name given it by Emperor Joseph II for its singular
flavor. Developed as a digestif by his physician, Dr. Zwack,
this third, 18th century creation was commercially available
by the 1850s; unlike Drambuie and Benedictine, it wasn’t
until the 20th century that politics made life difficult
fact, the Zwack family did quite well making and selling
Unicum and other liqueurs until World War II, when Allied
bombs destroyed their factory in Budapest. Just as they
began to rebuild, the new Communist government confiscated
both the family home and the factory; brothers Janos and
Bela eventually emigrated to the U.S., sneaking their secret
recipe out with them in a breast-pocket.
When the Hungarian Communist government tried to continue
making Unicum – without the recipe or know-how –
Janos saw the Zwack family name being destroyed. He eventually
won an international lawsuit against the Hungarian government
for their trademark, but it wasn’t until the next
generation that the Zwack family would return to making
Peter Zwack cut his teeth in the American liquor industry
until political changes in Hungary opened the door for his
return. In 1989 he was the first Hungarian to buy back the
family business and reintroduced Hungary to its national
drink. Since then it has slowly trickled into other countries,
doing especially well in countries like Germany and Italy
where they already have a tradition of bitter digestifs.
because Unicum is, particularly for Americans, an acquired
taste. Its bittersweet character is too complex to be a
frat-boy shot drink like its German cousin Jaegermeister.
With such a rich flavor it also isn’t ideal for today’s
fruity, vodka-based cocktails. But a combination of maceration,
distillation, and oak-aging gives it a rounded herbal-licorice
edge with just enough sweetness to wrap up a meal. It’s
traditionally served in balloon-shaped glasses (which match
well with the bottle, shaped as it is like an old-school
anarchist bomb); it also goes well on the rocks for an aperitif.
Hungarians today still swear by its recuperative powers:
I once visited Budapest in a bleak December and promptly
caught a cold, but locals plied me with enough Unicum to
get me up on my feet for some vigorous Hungarian folk-dancing,
and I awoke the next morning with a clear head and not a
sniffle in sight.