The Digestif Debate


A neurotic cocktail expert picks an after-dinner drink. It’s not as simple as it sounds.

Bobby Burns
AUTHOR: Steve McDonagh

Yield: 1 cocktail

2 ounces Scotch
3⁄4 ounce Sweet Vermouth
1⁄2 ounce Benedictine

Combine the ingredients in a cocktail shaker filled with ice. Stir well. Strain into a chilled coupe and serve garnished with a healthy slice of lemon peel.

The client was pushing brandy hard. “Just one. C’mon, you’re a cocktail guy, how can you not have a brandy after dinner?” I was fairly certain both my credentials and masculinity were being called to question.

But he had hit the nail on the head. I’m a cocktail guy, which is different than being the “single malt guy” or the “VSOP guy.” I love the process of mixing and muddling, of icing and shaking, of pre-chilling and pouring. I don’t have the most sophisticated palate in the room, so the complexities of peat don’t excite me as much as the in-your-face bitter of Amaro married with the herbal spice of Chartreuse.

Still, the pressure remained to choose a brandy. The restaurant was on the pedestrian side, and although I could get a decent martini, I couldn’t order a pre-Prohibition cocktail.

America drank differently before Prohibition. Our cocktails were measured and thoughtful. There was time and effort put into the preparation, and the flavors were layered and intense. Offerings of the past few decades have featured far too many sugary vodka cocktails or drinks that rely more on physical presentation than quality components.

A Bobby Burns! That’s what I wanted, with its three arguably manly ingredients of smoky scotch, sweet vermouth, and herbal Benedictine. Spritz a twist of lemon oil across the top of the chilled coupe, and you have my go-to cocktail of the winter months. Not a well-known drink, the secret is the Benedictine. If the scotch is the dark suit this drink wears, then the sweet vermouth is the shirt and tie, but the Benedictine is the zippy red striped socks you weren’t expecting.

Benedictine is a cognac and herbal-based liqueur that dates back to the 1500s. The recipe, said to include 27 plants and spices, is a highly guarded secret. My favorite tidbit on Benedictine is that there are reportedly only three people at any given time who know the recipe. Benedictine is a thing of loveliness, adding warmth, sweetness, and herbal spice to cocktails. And like other sweeter liqueurs, it adds a luxe weight to your drink that gives a pleasing heaviness to your palate as you sip.

I considered ordering a Bobby Burns and then thought about how I’d have to give the recipe to the bartender. I’d be the poseur sitting at table 12 with his cocktail book on the table testing the local bartender. We all hate that guy. “Oh, you’ve never made a Bobby Burns? Why, it’s right here in my book.” Just get a brandy, you officious tool.

“Or!” I realized, “Or, I could make everyone happy and simply order a brandy and a Benedictine. As in a B&B. In a snifter. Like the rest of the table.” And I did. It was the first time I’d actually had a B&B and it was absolutely perfect. Warm, smooth, weighty, spicy, and the client picked up the tab. I love a happy ending, especially one that ends with a glass of booze in my hand and my wallet in my pocket.

A master of classic and craft cocktails, Steve McDonagh is one half of catering company The Hearty Boys. McDonagh and partner Dan Smith appeared on The Next Food Network Star and starred in Party Line with the Hearty Boys. The two have opened multiple restaurants around Chicago and have published two cookbooks.

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