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Secret Spirits for Halloween
By Jim Clarke

Coca-Cola isn’t 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

drambuie on StarChefs.comFor 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

beneditine on StarChefs.comBonnie 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 for Unicum.

unicum on StarChefs.comIn 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 Unicum.

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.

unicums StarChefs.comThat’s 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.

 

 
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       Published: October 2005

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