No one likes Benedictine DOM in their kailan but this is why we eat it anyway

Benedictine DOM is known as DOM in both Malaysia and Singapore. It is made from a highly confidential list of 27 herbs and spices which include myrrh (Mo Yao, or 没药) and angelica root (Dang Dui, or 当归).

Everyone thinks that Benedictine DOM is a core part of postpartum nutrition. Everyone assumes that it is medically essential and even “indispensable”. Some even assume that you have to finish an entire bottle within the 40 days after delivery.

But no one knows that this assumption is mostly based on a brilliant marketing campaign which took a life of its own. Curious about how a sweet French liqueur became a staple for Chinese postpartum recovery? Read on!

Did you know?

Benedictine DOM is sold globally in North America, Europe and in Asia (specifically southern China and Southeast Asia). But only in Asia is DOM used mainly as a confinement tonic among Chinese communities. Sales are divided almost equally between the regions.

This means that confinement women are consuming nearly 30% of Benedictine DOM’s global supply annually.

The beginnings: Benedictine DOM as a digestive tonic for European colonists

Benedictine DOM today may be synonymous with Chinese women in confinement, but it has its roots in the pretty coastal town of Fecamp in Normandy, France.

Fecamp Benedictine DOM
Fecamp, the hometown of Benedictine DOM. Image source: Tripadvisor

First launched in 1863 by a French aristocrat named Alexandre Le Grand, whose family ran a successful wine and spirits export business, the sweet 40% proof liqueur was marketed as a medical tonic based on an ancient elixir created by the Benedictine monks of Fecamp in 1510.

While some sources claim that the original recipe (purportedly created by a monk named Dom Bernardo Vincelli) is now kept in a vault in Geneva, most have called bull on the marketing myth.

Either way, liqueurs, particularly those incorporating exotic herbs and spices, were incredibly fashionable as a status symbol among the European gentry at that time, DOM quickly became a hit. By 1864, Le Grand had trademarked both the name “Benedictine”, as well as the iconic bottle shape of the liqueur.

Three years later, DOM found its way from the bustling port of Fecamp to Singapore, which was also experiencing an economic boom. The steamship had just been launched and the British Crown Colony was enjoying rapid growth driven by entrepot trade.

Following the marketing strategy in France, advertisements of DOM were targetted at the English-speaking European gentry. In any case, the majority of the population (ie. the Chinese) were uneducated would likely have spent their salary on opium, not fancy liqueur.

benedictine dom advertisement 1866
The first advertisement of DOM in Singapore promoted the liqueur as a panacea for epidemic diseases, including cholera. #notsureifreallyeffective. Published in Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser on 26 July 1866. Image source: Singapore National Library website.

Sales of DOM in Singapore were slow in the first few decades after the launch. Even in 1898 (the date of the first available sales figures from the Benedictine archives), only 180 bottles were shipped to Singapore and another 180 to Penang.   

The first Chinese consumers of Benedictine: the Straits-born Chinese and newly wealthy coolies

The first Chinese company to make an order of DOM was Yong Lee Seng & Co., which ordered 120 bottles of Benedictine in 1908. As the shop was staffed with Straits-born Chinese who were fluent English speakers, it is likely that these were the first Chinese exposed to imported European liqueurs such as DOM.

Yong Lee Seng & Co benedictine DOM import
Yong Lee Seng & Co was a large grocery store which also functioned a bread supplier for the British army. It had two shops: at 27 Kling Street (bottom) and at 170-173 Orchard Road (right). Kling Street was later renamed Chulia Street. Image source: Twentieth Century Impressions of British Malaya Its History, People, Commerce, Industries, and Resources (1908), Wright, Arnold, pp 721

But by the 1940s, particularly after World War 2, another key customer segment emerged: the middle class Chinese population that had grown wealthy from the post-war rubber boom.

The first Chinese advertisements of DOM made their appearance after the second world war in 1948. Featuring a cherub holding the iconic bottle, these were not entirely different from what was published in the English papers.

Tonic wines have been consumed by the Chinese since the invention of alcohol itself during the Xia dynasty (BC 2070-1600). Thus the introduction of DOM, a French herbal liqueur, was unlikely to have been a novel item for the Chinese population in the British crown colonies in Southeast Asia.

But as it was perceived as a luxury good available almost exclusively to the Europeans, or wealthy Chinese elite, DOM was naturally adopted as a status symbol by the Chinese middle class once there was an economic upswing.

To the surprise of the French owners of Benedictine DOM, it wasn’t the social climbing Chinese elites that formed Benedictine’s main consumer base. Rather, it was the humble coolies working in the rubber plantations and tin mines.

Eastern Agencies (1946) Ltd, the sole agent for DOM in the Far East reported the following in a letter to the Fecamp headquarters:

“Although Bénédictine is the most requested cordial in clubs, hotels and restaurants, this branch of the business remains very low and represents an unisgnificant percentage of the turnover. Most of the volume is sold in retail stores, one bottle at a time.”

But wait, but how would coolies afford to drink imported wine?

As a premium product imported from France, purchasing a bottle of DOM from the local store would have been regarded as a luxury and only done on celebratory occasions. For instance, during a particularly good year for rubber sales.

According to DOM’s sales records, imports in Malaya and Singapore peaked at 234,000 bottles in 1951 – an astounding year for the working-class in Singapore. 

That year, rubber prices more than quintupled to over USD 2 per pound compared to USD 0.35 per pound in 1949 while tin prices similarly had tripled during the same period.

Rubber price benedictine dom
Image source: The World Bank

 

In another letter to the Fecamp headquarters written in 1951, Eastern Agencies wrote:

“… there is a very considerable amount of additional money in circulation, and trading conditions have become extremely active. The workers who have gained good advantage from the boom are the rubber tappers and the tin coolies. Both these categories are known to be consumers of Benedictine.

… Now that people enjoy strong spending power, trade in Malaya is progressing on a very important scale and, for your information, I would point out that our successes have not been limited to Benedictine, but have also been enjoyed by many of our other lines which are consumed by the Chinese.”

Click on images below to see the letter, written on 16 Feb 1951. Document scanned and republished with permission from the Bacardi group.

The importance of Malaya and Singapore as a market soon became obvious to the management in Fecamp. In 1949, M Seward, the manager of Eastern Agencies visited Fecamp for the first time. Subsequently members of the Le Grand family visited the region in 1966 and again in 1969.

By then, the region then became the fourth largest market for Benedictine, after France, the USA and the UK. 

Popularity among new mothers

Besides the rubber tappers and tin miners, Eastern Agencies soon began marketing DOM as a herbal tonic to other sectors of the working class, including Samsui women and coolies working on the docks. The comics below, for example, explain how consuming DOM was beneficial as a preventive tonic for workers frequently exposed to the elements.

The trend soon caught on among new mothers undergoing confinement, a large consumer base for herbal tonics. While the original formula may have been created in France, the liqueur did contain one of the key ingredients essential in postpartum nutrition – angelica root (Dang Gui, or 当归), which is known as ginseng for women.

The potential for sales in this niche was apparent to Eastern Agencies, which proceeded to run a series of advertisements in both English and Chinese papers, promoting the herbal benefits of the liqueur for new mothers. 

The first advertisement targetted at new mothers appeared in 1954. Featuring a mother having a conversation with her daughter-in-law over a cup of tea, it extolls the virtues of DOM as the king of herbal wines, particularly for recovering postpartum women.

Nanyang Siang Pau on 12 May 1954. Image source: Singapore National Library website.

This continued into the 1960s and 1970s when Eastern Agencies continued to position Benedictine as the “King of Tonics”, touting the health benefits of the 27 secret herbs within the liqueur.  At this point, the ads targetted at confinement women continued to be run alongside more generic ads, and ads targetted at male workers.

That Benedictine was so readily adopted by Chinese women as part of their postpartum recovery came as a surprise even to the CEO of the company. In a 1969 report from his visit, the new CEO of Benedictine, Pierre Le Grand remarked (after complaining about the tiring tropical heat) that

“The way our liqueur is savoured by the Chinese community, especially Chinese women, is truly amazing…”

Longer excerpt of the letter here. Document scanned and republished with permission from the Bacardi group.

Aside from the popularity of the Benedictine, Le Grand noted that the liqueur was known among Chinese consumers as “DOM” and not Benedictine; a practice that still exists today.

Did you know? The prominent “DOM” on the bottle refers to “Deo Optimo Maximo,” the latin motto of the Benedictine order, which translates to “God infinitely good, infinitely great.” DOM also refers to the Latin word Dominus (Master) given to Benedictine abbots. So every time you refer to Benedictine DOM as “DOM” for short, you are effectively, praising a Christian god. Go figure!

1980s: “DOM” as a cultural tradition in Southeast Asia

By the 1980s, the association of Benedictine with the practice of confinement was so strong that distributors of the liqueur ceased to continue running product advertisements, relying mainly on giveaways of products related to motherhood.

An advertisement published in 1982, for example, touted a free gift pack with every purchase of the liqueur. The pack included Cussons baby power,  and two bars of soap worth $6.50.

Published in Sin Chew Jit Poh on 12 July 1982. Image source: Singapore National Library website

Another advert published in 1988 publicised a monthly lucky draw for anyone who purchased a bottle of Benedictine, displaying a deep understanding of Chinese superstition.

For instance, the advertisement campaign indicated that, aside from the monthly lucky draw when eight lucky participants would receive vouchers worth $500 each, there would be a “grand” lucky draw on the 8th of August that year. This was an especially auspicious date due to the conspicuous number of “8”s on the date 8/8/88.

The display of a male infant atop a dragon also showed an understanding that the 1988, the year of the dragon, was an especially auspicious year to have baby boys.

Lianhe Wan Bao on 25 March 1988. Image source: Singapore National Library website.

Disclaimer: Benedictine DOM is actually not a medically beneficial tonic

From a cordial concocted by a French aristocrat in Normandy to a confinement staple for Chinese women, the marketing campaign by Eastern Agencies took a life of its own.

Today the brand association of Benedictine with confinement is so strong that all Chinese women assume that consuming the liqueur is medically beneficial by sheer tradition.

A Google search for “DOM” and “confinement” bears testament to this. A post on motherhood website momswisdom.net for example, states:

Rice wine, sesame seed oil, old ginger, black vinegar, Dom Benedictine tonic are the most common condiments added to confinement food…. Dom Benedictine tonic is added to soups to help the post pregnancy body recuperate. The alcohol evaporates in the cooking, but drinking the Dom Benedictine tonic neat increases its efficacy.

… I only drank the soups with Dom Benedictine tonic added during my first confinement period. I don’t think that was enough. During my second and third confinements, I polished off more than 3 bottles of Dom Benedictine tonic during each of the 40 day confinement periods. Half was used in my soups, half I drank neat during my evening ’bouts of drinking’.

There are also numerous confinement recipes available online which show creative ways of incorporating the liqueur in dishes such as stewed chicken. Some confinement nannies even use Benedictine in stir fried vegetables or steamed fish (spoiler alert: both are horrible).

Yet all Chinese physicians will tell you that there are better ways of consuming angelica root (Dang Gui) and that the potential health hazards from consuming strong wines (Benedictine is 40% alcohol!) far outweigh any of its perceived medical benefits.

A marketing representative from Bacardi that I spoke to admitted that while Benedictine was indeed marketed as a tonic in the past, and that the perception of the liqueur having immense medical benefits for postpartum recovery has become custom, the company has not promoted the liqueur as such for some time. Especially since the World Health Organisation has classified Benedictine DOM as an alcoholic drink.

It would not be socially responsible, he said, revealing some plans to position the liqueur as a cocktail ingredient rather than a tonic, as it is in the rest of the world. He added (in a follow up email):

“While consuming alcohol in moderation can be part of a balanced lifestyle, we will never promote any of our brands as being beneficial for medicinal or therapeutic purposes…

Very clear guidelines are… giv[en] by our company and all our brands are following these guidelines, and so do our distributors around the world.

On one hand, as it is with all traditions, it would be a pity for such a custom to be lost as the Benedictine brand is repositioned. On the other, it’s about damn time we stopped using a sweet liqueur in a stir fry.

Note 1: Special thanks to the Bacardi group for information from the Benedictine archives! 

Note 2: Any copyright violations within this post are entirely my fault. If I’ve mistakenly posted what I shouldn’t have, please leave a message and we’ll get it resolved. Thanks!