*from the Rule of St. Benedict.
Image: Palais Benedictine, stained glass advertisement, Fecamp, Seine-Maritime, Normandy, France.
“Alexandre-Prosper-Hubert Le Grand (6 June 1830 – 25 June 1898) was a wine merchant and industrialist of the 19th century who in 1863 invented the liqueur known as Bénédictine from a mixture of native herbs and exotic spices.
Born the son of a sea captain in Fécamp, Le Grand discovered, in 1863, an old grimoire (“book of spells”) in the library of the abbey of Fécamp containing medicinal and herbal recipes collected by the monks of the abbey. With the aid of a pharmacist, he developed the recipe for the liqueur that would make him famous.
Inheriting a habit of eclecticism from his father, Alexandre Le Grand raised the Palais Bénédictine, a building whose architectural style was a mélange of Gothic, Renaissance, and art nouveau, and which in 1888 he made into the headquarters of the Bénédictine company. This building still exists and contains, in addition to the distillery, a museum dedicated to the liqueur.
Le Grand may have invented (all these) stories to buttress the popularity of his liqueur. The palace which he would later construct would represent these stories in large stained glass windows.
Patiently Le Grand re-created the medicinal formula, marrying myrrh with juniper, saffron with lemon rind. The drink was sent to market in a distinctive bottle. But first, Le Grand played a new card: that of advertising. He persuaded several renowned artists to create posters and placards for placement in France and abroad. These artists included Alphonse Mucha, Sem, Lopes Silva, and even Louise Abbéma in 1899, with an oil-on-canvas titled La Renommée de la Bénédictine displayed at the Salon in 1899 and then at the World’s Fair in Paris in 1900.
A decade after its launch, Bénédictine was selling 150,000 bottles per year. Its commercial success was so overwhelming that Le Grand in 1876 founded Bénédictine SA, a company dedicated solely to the production of liqueurs. In 1882, the year of its entry into the Bourse, the enterprise opened a new distillery to boost its production from 350,000 bottles annually to almost a million, driven by the Second Empire fondness for liqueurs.
Le Grand demonstrated a genius for marketing, deploying the precursors of corporate sponsorship and creating a legend about the brand. The brand was bolstered by Le Grand’s acquisition of medieval collections in the Palais Bénédictine and by his sponsorship of artists.
An innovator, Le Grand imagined a distillery that could accommodate visitors wishing to watch the production of the liqueur. The distillery was opened to the public in 1873. A practicing Catholic and a follower of Catholic social doctrines, Le Grand founded a pension fund for his workers, practiced a paternalistic policy, and insured his workers against workplace accidents. In 1892 he founded both an orphanage in Fécamp and a Bénédictine company orchestra (Harmonie).
An eclectic, Le Grand also brought together several collections of paintings, statues, pieces of metalwork, enamels, tapestries, ivories, coins, illuminated manuscripts, and stained glass. He housed this vast collection in a huge palace-cum-factory – the Palais Bénédictine – built by Camille Albert, then architect of the city, a disciple of Viollet-le-Duc.
The Palais was opened in 1888, but was consumed in a huge fire on 12 January 1892. It was rebuilt, in a form even more grandiose, the following year. Before the second building was completed in 1900, Le Grand died; the building was inaugurated by his children. The building’s finely wrought façade, dominated by spires and campaniles seemingly out of a Perrault fairy tale, enhances the prestige of the liqueur.”