The Tone of a Drink

Brown Sound

1 1/2 oz Rye Whiskey <Rittenhouse>
3/4 oz Benedictine
3/4 oz Punt e Mes

Stir with ice, strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a cherry.


I remember when I first got into cocktails, I’d see Benedictine in various drinks around the city.  For a while, I wasn’t entirely clear on exactly what it was, but I knew I liked it.  Smart money said if it was on the menu, I was getting that drink.  Research didn’t provide any hints as to why I was so drawn to it, as the recipe is a closely guarded secret purportedly only known by three people at any given time.  Nevertheless, the brown base and heady mix of plants and spices enamored me so that it wasn’t long before I came home with a bottle of my own.  It’s been a home bar staple ever since.

To get acquainted with a new addition to my bar, I first turn to the classics to get a feel of what it’s all about.  For Benedictine, this meant some Vieux Carres and Frisco Sours.  Clearly this liqueur got along very well with other brown spirits.  When it came time for my own experimentation, much of it centered around bourbon and rye.  Around the time I came up with the Brown sound, I was very much into equal parts recipes.  Basically I wanted to see what happen if I took a Boulevardier (equal parts rye or bourbon, Campari, and sweet vermouth) and went the opposite direction.  Removing the bitter, citrusy Campari for the sweeter, floraly Benedictine produced a bourbon based drink that was both strangely familiar yet excitingly fresh.  It went into my cocktail journal immediately so I wouldn’t forget it.

It remained in that form for a few years, until about 4 months ago when I was told a friend about it.  Later that night I received a text with a picture of the drink, but he tweaked the proportions slightly to dial down the sweetness.  Before I wrote him back I already mixed up this new version, and clearly he was on to something.  Now my wheels were really turning.  Maybe it was because it was one of the first drinks I came up with, or maybe it was because I wanted to stick to the equal parts template, but I never gave the original Brown Sound much scrutiny until this fateful night.  Apparentyl I was blind to the Benedictine tipping the scales a little too much towards sweet.

Now this is when making drinks at home is really fun, when you get to mix up multiple versions in the name of science.  That weekend was all about finding the best possible Brown Sound.  Next to go was the bourbon, and in came spicey rye.  Another shot across sweetness’s bow.  Finally, employing Punt e Mes in place of sweet vermouth gave the drink the last bit of backbone it needed.  And don’t get me wrong, there was still a lovely sweetness to the drink, thanks not only to the flavors of Benedictine but also it’s syrupy body.  But now there was an overall balance that was missing before.

The name refers to, at least what I thought at the time*, how Eddie Van Halen described his guitar tone.  Being a Van Halen fan, I loved hearing EVH put his trademark sound into words.  Seemed only natural to to name a drink with Rye and Benedicitne, two brown spirits, after that term.

* In looking for a link to the interview where I first read it, I came upon a different interview where EVH explains he wasn’t talking about his guitar tone, but his brother Alex’s snare sound.  Whatever, it’s still a great name for a drink

** Here’s another Van Halen tidbit.  Many people or familiar with the myth that they included items like “there will be no brown M&M’s in the backstage area” in their rider.  Obviously this was assumed to be an ego driven idiosyncracy, but it turns out it served a very important purpose.  I’ll let Diamond Dave explain.


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