The monks making liqueur in the French Alps

Marion Renault 25 April 2022

Only two monks know the full recipe for Chartreuse, and it remains frozen in time

When the world went into lockdown, for the monks of Chartreuse it was simply another tick on their 938-year record of self-imposed isolation.

The Chartreux brothers, also known as Carthusians, embrace a deeply ascetic existence near Grenoble in the western French Alps, observing customs that have barely changed since their Christian order was founded.

The monks pass the days alone, praying for humanity and listening for God in the silence that surrounds them. Frugal meals of bread, cheese, eggs, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and fish arrive through a cubbyhole in their individual quarters. With few exceptions, the monks do not enter one another’s quarters, and they rarely interact—save for midnight and daytime church services, where no musical instruments are allowed. Once a week, they stroll in pairs through the forests that fortify the monastery.

This lifestyle has survived centuries of external turmoil—avalanches, landslides, terrible fires, religious wars, pillaging, evictions and exile, military occupation, the French Revolution, and, yes, plagues. Through times of earthly chaos, the Chartreux thrive in accordance with their Middle Ages-era motto: Stat crux dum volvitur orbis (“The cross is steady while the world turns”).

Emmanuel Delafon (left), Chartreuse Diffusion CEO, with  Father Dom Benoît. Benoît  was one of the monks over-seeing  production until he recently stepped down

“This order has lasted because they know how to live beyond time, and they know how to live, also, in the present,” said Nadège Druzkowski, an artist and journalist who spent almost five years putting together a documentary project on the monastery and its surrounding landscapes. “It’s humbling.”

In 2020, the Chartreux philosophy worked in reverse: as COVID-19 ground the rest of the world to a sudden halt, the Carthusian way of life went on, unchanged. The Carthusians sustain this isolated lifestyle largely through the production and sale of Chartreuse, a liqueur the monks developed centuries ago.

Like its mountainous namesake and the hue named after it, Chartreuse is sharp, bright, profoundly herbal. In Evelyn Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited, Anthony Blanche compares it to ingesting the rainbow, “like swallowing a spectrum.”

"In 2020, the Chartreux philosophy worked in reverse: as COVID-19 ground the rest of the world to a sudden halt, the Carthusian way of life went on, unchanged"

Brendan Finnerty, a bar owner and Chartreuse superfan in the US city of Baltimore, says it tastes “like Christmas in a glass,” or “grassy Jägermeister.” To me, it has the colour and flavour of summer sunlight striking a canopy of leaves—impossibly vibrant, sparkling with life, green beyond belief.

When France went into periods of pandemic confinement, little changed at the Chartreuse production site—even as the country’s winemakers and producers of other liquors, such as Cognac and Cointreau, struggled. Shutdowns in France and beyond did, however, close the bars and restaurants that usually function as the secular conduit for the monastic liqueur. Chartreuse sales dropped to two-thirds their usual level, according to a press officer for the distilling company Chartreuse Diffusion.

“That world sank in a dramatic way,” said Philippe Rochez, the brand’s export director, “so we turned to what was open.” The enterprise pivoted from the service industry to wine merchants and liquor stores, hoping to place Chartreuse in household cabinets and bar carts.

Monks, circa 1953, collect herbs for making Chartreuse

Throughout the pandemic the company also upheld its founding mission of good will and benevolence, donating a portion of sales to a support programme for the US hospitality industry and gifting 10,000 litres of pure alcohol to a Grenoble hospital for much-needed hand sanitiser. The monks also sacrificed their weekly social walks, in solidarity with the outside world.

“We were separated from all, but participated through our prayer,” said Michael Holleran, a Catholic priest in New York City and a former Carthusian; he was at the order’s head monastery, Grande Chartreuse, for almost five years. And, the liqueur company followed the path of its founders and remained patient. “We have had to learn to live with the virus,” Rochez said, and that will take time. At Chartreuse, luckily, there’s nothing but time. 

“The Carthusians have a wonderful perspective,” Father Holleran said. “The days pass very quickly when you’re immersed in the shadow of eternity.” 

A Millennium Ago

The year was 1084, and seven men in search of isolation and solitude took refuge in southeastern France’s Chartreuse Mountains—“the emerald of the Alps,” as the French writer known as Stendhal called them. According to legend, centuries later, in 1605, the order’s monastery near Paris received an alchemist’s ancient manuscript for a perfectly concocted medicinal tonic of about 130 herbs and plants: the “Elixir of Long Life.” 

The monks studied and slowly refined the recipe until by 1764 they had a potent (69 per cent alcohol) Elixir Végétal, which a lone monk, Frère Charles, delivered by mule to nearby towns and villages. In 1840, the monks formulated a milder version, Green Chartreuse (55 per cent alcohol), and a sweeter Yellow Chartreuse (43 per cent). Both have become popular cocktail ingredients, while the Elixir continues to be sold medicinally for ailments such as indigestion, sore throat, and nausea.

"The days pass very quickly when you’re immersed in the shadow of eternity"

Today, the order sells about 1.5 million bottles of its three hallmark products annually, with the yellow and green liqueurs going for about £45, and cask-aged versions for £133 or more. About half its production run is sold in France, with the United States the largest export market.

Royalties go back to 370-some Carthusian monks and nuns residing in 24 charter houses spread across the globe, including Argentina, Brazil, Germany, Italy, Slovenia, South Korea, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Remarkably, among them, only two monks know the full 130-ingredient recipe. 

“The secret of Chartreuse has long been the despair of distillers, just as the natural blue of forget-me-nots has been the despair of painters,” reads an 1886 document referred to in a recent history of the company and order. 

Father Holleran spent almost five years overseeing the distillation process, ordering ingredients and planning its production schedules. When he departed the site in 1990, he became the only living outsider to know the liqueur’s ancient formula. 

A glass of Chartreuse

“It’s safe with me,” he said. “Oddly enough, they didn’t make me sign anything when I left.” But the formula is extremely complicated, he adds, and involves lived expertise passed on through generations. “No one has ever been able to duplicate the Chartreuse, or could ever do so.”

This trade secret is both a marketing coup and a potential catastrophe. “I am very scared always,” a Chartreuse Diffusion president told The New Yorker in 1984. “Only three of the brothers know how to make it—nobody else knows the recipe. And each morning they drive together to the distillery. And they drive a very old car. And they drive it very badly.” He added, “I really have no idea what it is I sell.”

Beyond the two monks who now protect the recipe, Brother Jean-Jacques and Brother Raphaël Marie, all the others—Carthusian or not—involved in the production of Chartreuse know only fragments of it.

Old-Fashioned Quality Control

Inside the Grande Chartreuse, skilled monks receive, measure, and sort 130 unlabelled plants and herbs into giant sacks. Then, at the distillery, five non-Carthusian employees work alongside two white-robed monks to macerate, distill, blend, and age the liqueur.

A computerised system allows them to monitor the distilling from the monastery. Along its five-week distilling process, and throughout the subsequent years of ageing, those two monks are also the ones who taste the product and decide when it is ready to be bottled and sold. 

“They are the quality control,” said Emmanuel Delafon, the current CEO of Chartreuse Diffusion. The order owns the company almost exclusively, and works with the business’s secular employees, who carry out the tasks too foreign to the monks’ hermetic vocation. “It’s their product, and we’re at their service,” Delafon said. “They need it to maintain their financial independence. They trust us to make the link between monastic life and everything else.”

The monastery is in the Chartreuse Mountains in south-eastern France

In 1935, the city of Voiron became the liqueur’s main manufacturing site. But in 2011, Delafon said, regional officials tightened distilling regulations, mostly aimed at the hazards of making such high-proof alcohol—fires and vapour-fuelled explosions, notably. After all, the Elixir barely escapes the International Air Transport Organisation’s threshold for dangerous goods. Officials deemed the Chartreuse distillery dangerously close to schools and homes. 

"Those two monks are also the ones who taste the product and decide when it is ready to be bottled and sold"

So, looking for a new production home, Chartreuse settled on a plot of land previously owned and farmed by the Carthusians starting in the 17th century. By 2020 the entire process, from distillation to bottling, had moved to its new £15 million facility in rural Aiguenoire.

It’s a 15-minute drive from Chartreuse’s mountainside headquarters and two miles from the source of water used to make the liqueur. “The Carthusians came home,” Delafon said.

With the growing concerns over the health effects of sugar and alcohol, two major ingredients in liqueur, the company is exploring other plant-based products that could be more in line, morally, with the monastery’s values: herbal medicine, aromatherapy, balms, and ointments, for example.

It would not be the first time the Carthusians reinvent themselves. Over their nearly 1,000-year history, the order has recovered from natural disasters, government expulsions, pestilence, and poverty. “Every time, they have lifted themselves up, recovered, and redefined themselves,” said Nadège Druzkowski, the documentary maker.

That willingness to transform while remaining loyal to the order’s legacy is both a luxury and a safeguard during times of turmoil, according to Delafon. “When you have roots this deep,” he said, “it allows you to forget the short term and project your vision far into the future.”

From The New York Times (December 17, 2020), Copyright © 2020 by The New York Times Company.

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