From the Archives: La Grande Chartreuse (1987)

The green potion that brightened up the Dark Ages.
chartreuse
Courtesy of High Times

By Bernard Garfinkel

The first thing you notice is the color, a particular and lovely translucent green, the green of a deep tropical sea, of a primeval planet steaming in the sun, yet modern, too, a glowing neon, a Ferrari green. It is, of course, the color to which the liqueur Chartreuse gave its name. And, amazingly, the color of Chartreuse is of its essence. It’s the power of suggestion, probably, but there’s no escaping the feeling that it tastes green, and this is part of its pleasure. Like the coral of a boiled lobster shell, the green of Chartreuse is unique; it signals the liqueur itself, somehow telegraphs to the mind before the first sip that spiky, sweet, spicy and complex taste.

Chartreuse has been called the “best liqueur in the world.” Certainly, it’s the most expensive, and the most potent as well—110 proof, while other liqueurs range from 50 to 96. (There is also a yellow Chartreuse, considered by most aficionados not to dwell on the same level of delight as the green. Its proof is 86.) This alcoholic power has, in recent times, given rise to advertising campaigns extolling its 55-percent spiritous content in phrases such as “green fire.” Then, too, there’s more than a hint of the aphrodisiacal in its legend. The secret blend of ingredients that mysteriously combine to give Chartreuse its special flavor and color has been described as having magical and sexual powers, of being associated with ancient gods of fertility and desire.

Yet the liqueur is made by an extraordinarily devout band of monks of the Carthusian order, whose ascetic life of isolation, silence, fasting, chastity and prayer is regarded as the most difficult and demanding vocation in the Roman Catholic church. Originally produced as a healing potion, a medicine with tonic powers for digestive and other ailments (a function it still serves for some), Chartreuse has become, you might say magically, a healing flow of money for the monks, whose hermetic lifestyle in the Monastery of La Grande Chartreuse in the hills near Grenoble in southeastern France is as expensive to maintain as that of a yacht-collecting Greek tycoon.

Chartreuse has, in fact, come to represent, like Coca-Cola, a business secret of enormous value, and since the latter half of the nineteenth century, when it achieved worldwide commercial success, it has been a frequent target of industrial espionage and high-powered chemical analysis aimed at stealing its well-guarded formula or breaking its lucrative code. To no avail. Although dozens of imitations—from the Japanese Chartreuse Morozoff to La Princesse des Chartreux— have surfaced from time to time, all of them, like the imitations of Coke, have failed by a greater or lesser measure to duplicate the real thing.

There’s no doubt that Chartreuse is a highly complex compound. It is made from 130 different herbs, plants, and spices. Many of these are found in the Alpine hills near the monastery and gathered by local laborers paid by the monks. Others are shipped in from around the world. Perhaps Crick and Watson, the scientists who “cracked” the DNA and RNA molecules, could take Chartreuse apart and label precisely its components and their proportions. But other scientists have tried and failed. All that they’ve been able to do is identify some of the herbs and plants it contains.

Frank Schoonmaker, the renowned wine expert, listed the following as “probably” present in green Chartreuse: lemon balm, hysopp, peppermint, genepi, angelica seed and root, thyme, balsam, purslane, arnica blossoms, cinnamon and mace. Yellow Chartreuse has a different formula, but, Schoonmaker reported, it undoubtedly contains a high proportion of coriander. No other liqueur approaches the complexity of Chartreuse. Benedictine, for example, contains 30 herbs and spices, and the Italian liqueur Strega (which means “witch”), made by the Benevento family from a secret formula for the past 110 years, has 70 ingredients.

The ingredients in Chartreuse are blended and prepared according to the ancient formula that was given to the monks in 1605. According to the Carthusians, the donor is unknown but probably “a French alchemist.” According to another account he was the Marshal d’Estrees, a friend of King Henri IV. In any event the gift was ignored for some 150 years, until Brother Gérôme Maubec, “a clever apothecary,” managed after 27 years of experimenting to translate the formula for “an herbal elixir of long life” into a consumable potion. In the ceiling over the six copper stills are trapdoors that open and close at the whim of the brewmasters. When the monks have finished preparing a batch of herbs, a trapdoor above a still opens suddenly, a pipe descends into the still, and the herbs cascade down into the vat. Then the pipe is drawn upward again, there is a muffled whump as the trapdoor closes, and the secret mixing process continues above. On days of special religious observance at the monastery, the brewmasters do not appear at the distillery, and if the company’s workers have no ingredients from the previous day in the distilling vats, they busy themselves with other work, or they do nothing.

Chartreuse has been described as having magical and sexual powers associated with ancient gods of fertility and erotic desire.

Maubec’s work was carried on by a fellow monk, Brother Antoine, who produced in 1764 an elixir de table and an elixir de santé, stronger and darker. The elixir de table is present-day green Chartreuse. The elixir de santé is still sold in Europe as a tonic (take two or three drops on a lump of sugar), its alcoholic potency weighing in at a formidable 136 proof. (This elixir is not allowed into the United States because it is deemed a “patent medicine.”) A century after Maubec and Antoine, Brother Bruno Jacquet compounded the yellow variety.

Following the perfected formulas, the ingredients for Chartreuse are prepared and proportioned in secret ways and, as we shall see, in a private place from which all but monks are excluded. The flavoring compound is then mixed with honey and a brandy base and the result distilled six different times, during which further ingredients are added.

We should, at this point, distinguish between brandy, fruit and flavored liqueurs and herb liqueurs such as Chartreuse. Brandy is a distillate of grapes or other fruits. Grape brandy (from wine) is normally known as cognac, after the district in France that produces what is generally regarded as the world’s best. Other fruits give their names to brandies: apples (Calvados), plums (Quetsch or Mirabelle), raspberries (Framboise). Flavored liqueurs are known in the trade as “infusions.” They’re produced by steeping fresh fruit in neutral spirits or brandy, then sweetening and filtering the result, and this process gives them more fruit flavor than the brandies. Among the flavoring agents are mint, coffee beans, anise and various fruits—apples, blackberries, cherries and oranges, among many others. Finally, there are the herb liqueurs such as Chartreuse, Strega, Benedictine, Galliano. These are known in France as liqueurs jaune (yellow) even when they’re colorless. They’re made by steeping herbs in brandy or spirits, then sweetening, coloring and distilling the results.

In France the herbal liqueurs are often referred to as monastic liqueurs because so many of them were first made at monasteries by religious orders. But today Chartreuse is the only liqueur still made by monks. In contrast, Benedictine, supposedly first made at the Benedictine abbey at Fecamp in France, no longer has any connection with the order.

As the guardians of their secret formula, the Carthusians are faced with a major problem in security, and their solution would do justice to the CIA. Chartreuse is made at a distillery in the village of Voiron, a few miles from Grenoble and the monastery. The secret formula and Maubec’s translation of it repose in a vault at the monastery.

Access to the formula, as in the best intelligence organizations, is doled out on a need-to-know basis. At any given time, only five monks are allowed to know. Three of them are the monks who prepare the ingredients at the distillery. The other two are the director of the monastery and his assistant. In the best tradition of corporate and intelligence-agency security, the five men are not allowed to travel in the same vehicle, and, in fact, even the three monks are not allowed to ride in the same car over the winding mountain roads from the monastery to the distillery, since they have no “backup men” to do their job. Only when a monk begins to reach what is estimated to be the last few years of his tenure as a “brewmaster” is a younger replacement trained.

At the distillery, top security is maintained. While Chartreuse is made by the three monks who prepare the formula, the rest of the process—distillation, bottling, labeling, marketing and distribution—is in the hands of a production company with which the Carthusian order is associated for this purpose, the Campagnie de la Grande Chartreuse. Its employees, needless to say, are not in the know. Consequently, at the distillery there is a white-painted staircase leading to the second floor, and only the three Carthusian brewmasters mount its steps.

Back at the monastery, the brewmasters pursue exactly the same silent and solitary life as their fellow monks. The Carthusian order was founded in 1084 by St. Bruno on a desolate mountaintop near Grenoble called Chartreuse (which translates as “wilderness”). In the years since, other Carthusian monasteries have been established throughout Europe (Stendhal’s Charterhouse of Parma was one), all following St. Bruno’s original dedication to an hermetical life. A recent report put the present number at 26, housing some 800 brothers.

La Grande Chartreuse is the headquarters monastery of the order, and its director is the head of the entire order. At Chartreuse, the 32 monks live for the most part isolated from each other as well as from the outside world. They come together only for religious services and when groups of 10 or 15 stroll through the countryside. Only on these woodland walks do the monks converse with each other. Inside the monastery, they follow their vow of silence. (At the distillery, the monks converse with each other and outsiders when necessary.) Their cells are on two levels, the lower one for work, the upper one for prayer and meditation. Besides a bed, the rooms contain nothing but an altar, pew, workbench and stove. The monks no longer wear hair shirts, as they once did, but dress in cowled robes of white serge. In the main they still follow the ancient order’s strict dietary requirements, never eating meat, fasting on bread and water three days a week, eating once a day otherwise (except on feast days). They have no radios, TV or newspapers, nor in fact any contact at all with the outside world except for a brief visit from their families once every five years.

Their monastery is an extensive cluster of buildings that house, in addition to monks, lay brothers who take care of the domestic work. It is surrounded by a 14-foot-high wall, more to keep the world out than the monks inside. On a typical day, they retire at seven in the evening, wake up at two in the morning for meditation and prayer, attend vespers and matins at nine, 12 noon and four in the afternoon. In between, they work in their cells, mainly at writing.

This devoted existence is supported in all of the monasteries by the income the Carthusians receive from Chartreuse, which is now regarded to be in excess of $4 million a year, based on a royalty of close to 25 percent on each bottle the monks produce.

But even with the beneficence of this income, the order has experienced a good deal of travail. In 1903, with the passage of a new religious law in France, the Carthusians were expelled from the country, the second time they had experienced that fate, the first being immediately after the French Revolution. This time they settled in Tarragona, Spain, where they built a new distillery and continued to produce Chartreuse.

Meanwhile, the French government and its platoon of chemists attempted to divine the secret of the liqueur. The product they marketed as their best guess won few converts, and ultimately the company set up to replace the Carthusians was on the verge of bankruptcy. Finally, in 1940, the Carthusians were allowed to return, given back their monastery and distillery and permitted once again to produce the original liqueur.

As for what might seem to be an inconsistency between their strict religious vows and their purveyance of one of the world’s strongest drinks, the monks take a philosophical view. Recently, the Reverend Père at the Chartreuse monastery commented on this question by saying: “After all, we have to live. And can one truthfully say that Chartreuse contributes to alcoholism?”

One does, in fairness to the monks, have to conclude that less expensive, less refined beverages undoubtedly contribute more. And beyond that, there is the incontrovertible reality that brandy and liqueurs have been traditional in European life since as early as the thirteenth century, regarded at the least as bracing tonics and often as medicinally therapeutic, hence the name given to them—aqua vitae, eau de vie, water of life.

And, of course, were the Carthusians to stop making Chartreuse, they would simply be taking one of the world’s great drinking experiences away from us, removing from modern life one more superior product that would no doubt be replaced by an inferior substitute, more than likely an artificial one like so many of the other liqueurs that have swamped the market, made not from natural fruits and herbs but from alcohol, chemical flavorings and copious amounts of raw sugar, the whole aged for all of 90 days.

Chartreuse, in contrast, is aged longer than most other liqueurs, for up to four years (the premium VEP variety is aged for 15 years); and, as its label proclaims, it is “entirely natural.” It is this natural condition, in fact, that according to its American distributor, Schieffelin and Company, has led to what might be termed a mini-boom in Chartreuse drinking. It began in southern California, where nature-hungry students took to drinking a concoction they called Swampwater: pour a shot of green Chartreuse in a tall glass, fill with pineapple juice, add ice and a squeeze of lime.

Happy to go along with a trend, Schieffelin began to promote Swampwater party kits, complete with napkins, postcard invitations, Swampwater mason jars and inflatable plastic alligators. That put Chartreuse in the modern world, along with Galliano, which had previously made its collegiate debut in the Harvey Wallbanger.

The Carthusian brothers were happy to go along with this, inasmuch as it represented a whole new market for their liqueur, which previously, in America at least, had a more corporate-boardroom, gourmet image. (This image still applies. For his famous $4,000 meal at the Paris restaurant Drouant, won at a public television fund-raising auction, New York Times food writer Craig Claiborne chose, as one dish, duck with Chartreuse.) The Carthusians did draw the line, however, at advertising efforts to further the fame of Swampwater in “sexy” magazines such as Playboy, and Chartreuse now reaches its college market in Cosmopolitan, People, Glamour and Essence.

And Swampwater aside, Chartreuse, like other liqueurs, can do marvelous things for food, in addition to fulfilling what I consider to be its main function in life as a soul-stroking after-dinner toast to a memorable meal. Try it on ice cream, add a dash to chocolate sauce, pour it over fruit or cake. Less to my taste but favored by many gourmets is its addition to cooked dishes—Claiborne’s duck, a veal scallopini or a baked filet of sole with cream sauce, to mention just a few.

In any event, finish off your dinner by holding a glassful up to the light, observe its strange and sensual green depths and sip slowly of its therapeutic essence, first having toasted Brothers Gérôme and Antoine, who labored in the Lord’s vineyard for your pleasure. And you might give a moment’s silent thought to the brothers in Grenoble, who are only allowed to drink their magical medicine once a year, at Christmas feasts.

High Times Magazine, October 1978

Read the full issue here.

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