This article first appeared in (the now closed) Bitten Magazine in January 2015
It’s the winter of 1917. You’re far from home, it’s cold to the bone, bitterly and you’re standing ankle deep in trench water. Rats scurry about, but don’t bother you too much. More worrying is the deep ache in your limbs, the damp chill of your feet and the noise from above. From beyond the barbed wire.
Someone hands you something warm in an enamel mug. You sip, expecting your normal rum tot with hot water, but this is different. This is sweet, honeyed, herbal. It warms you, maybe it settles the nerves in your tummy a little, but you feel better. Comforted.
You return home to Burnley, to the Miners’ Club you’re a member of, to your old life. But you crave that hot sweet drink, and you’re not alone. Across Lancashire the boys of the East Lancashire Regiment’s 5th Battalion have all brought their thirst back with them – to Burnley, to Accrington, to Padiham, to Nelson and Darwen.
This sweet syrupy herbal drink is Benedictine, a liqueur created, so legend would have it, in 1510 by Benedictine monks and rediscovered in 1863 by wine merchant Alexandre Le Grand in Fecamp, Normandy. He experimented, perfected the recipe and Benedictine Liqueur was born.
Fast forward to the Normandy coast in WWI and the vast Palais Benedictine built by Le Grand to celebrate the liqueur was used as a field hospital and Benedictine was being dispensed to all for its purported health benefits. Original advertising recommended it for everything from an upset tummy to pregnant ladies in confinement. No matter, it brought comfort to those both out in the trenches, and those hospitalised.
In WWII, by coincidence, the same regiment was stationed in the same region. No wonder, nearly 100 years later this love is still going strong. And still the biggest single customer on Benedictine’s books (outside France) is Burnley Miners’ Club. One that Benedictine are rightly proud of, and members of the Clubs Committee have visited the Palais, and the Club holds annual parties to celebrate the relationship.
‘It makes you feel better,’ explains Secretary Alan Kennedy, “and I tell you what a lot of ’em do, a lot will have a few pints and then have a Bene ‘n ‘ot before they go home, especially in the winter, and it settles the stomach. And it does settle it, because I do it myself – or at least that’s my excuse!’.
Bene ‘n ‘ot, Bene ‘n ice , or just plain Bene, the club sells around 800 bottles a year. The average bar in the UK might go through 2 bottles.
But there’s still reason to worry a little about the future.
‘The club ordered the first lot around 1918, got the bottles delivered, and sent through an urgent order for 100 bottles more a few months later. In the heydey we were selling well over 1000 bottles a year, but it has tailed off a little. Those who drank it were older people and some of them have passed on.’
Whatever the 21st Century holds for Burnley, for Benedictine Liqueur and for this historically beautiful relationship, it’s one that still catches the imagination.
100 years since the outbreak of WWI, it’s hard not to think of the comfort that warm enamel cup brought.