Some of the most famous wines and liqueurs of France are the work of monks, especially of the Benedictine order. The monks developed viticulture in Burgundy, invented Champagne and today a liqueur still carries their name, although the Benedictines no longer have anything to do with its making.
But perhaps the most fascinating story concerns the ultra-secret formula for making Chartreuse. Surprisingly, the Carthusians did not actually invent the liqueur named after them.
In 1605, Marshal d'Estrées gave the Carthusians of Paris a formula for an elixir involving the distillation of 130 herbs that had come into his hands from an anonymous alchemist. The formula eventually found its way to the Grande Chartreuse (or charterhouse), the monastery founded in the 11th century in the Alps near Grenoble. About the middle of the 18th century, Brother Jerome Maubec, who was an apothecary, decided to try the recipe out.
On the verge of developing a successful process for the production of the formula, Brother Jerome fell gravely ill. He used his last breath to dictate what he had learned. A few years later, Brother Antoine perfected the recipe for an elixir, which is still made and sold at 142 proof, and for a milder (at 110 proof!) liqueur, today's green Chartreuse.
The French Revolution broke up the monastic orders and monks were persecuted. The monk entrusted with the formula was jailed in Grenoble but fortunately not searched. Transferred to a prison in Bordeaux, he fell ill but, before he died, managed to get the recipe to another monk.
This monk was unable to do anything with it since the order was still dispersed. One day in desperation he sold it to a chemist. Shortly after this, Napoleon decreed that all secret formulas must be turned over to the state for examination and possible exploitation. Luckily, the government considered this one worthless and ignored it.
In 1816, the restoration of the monarchy permitted the monks to return to their monastery. They recuperated their formula and again produced their liqueurs, including a new yellow one, sweeter and less strong, that was developed in 1838.
Ten years later, some army officers tasted Chartreuse, which up to then had been reserved for the use of the monks and for medicinal purposes. They were so taken by it that they spread the word and soon the Carthusians were selling it generally.
The story would end here, except that the monks were expelled from France once again, in 1903, during a period of anticlericalism. This time they took their recipe with them to their monastery at Tarragona in Spain and continued making their liqueurs.
An attempt was made to reproduce it in France, but with little success, for the Carthusians got their Tarragona production recognized internationally as the only authentic Chartreuse, which is still made there and sold in Spain and Latin America.
Shortly before the German attack in 1940, the monks were again permitted to return to the Grande Chartreuse. An inauspicious moment. But the monastery survived the war and today the major part of the liqueurs, about a million quarts a year, is again produced in France at the distillery in Voiron, 15 miles from Grenoble. This establishment is also quite a tourist attraction, for 120,000 visitors come every year for a tour of the cellars and a free taste of liqueur.
The commercialization of Chartreuse (which is another story, nearly as involved as that of the liqueurs) is in the hands of a joint shareholding company, 95 percent owned by the order. Nearly two-thirds of the production is exported, 15 percent of it to the United States, the No. 1 foreign market.
Three monks, who spend three months of the year at Tarragona, are in charge of the distilling and aging – for Chartreuse is the only liqueur aged in casks – and only they and the father procurator have access to the famous secret formula.
The monks produce the elixir and regular green and yellow Chartreuse as well as VEP green and yellow Chartreuses. The VEP stands for vieillissement exceptionnellement prolongé, or exceptionally prolonged aging. These VEPs are indeed magnificent, if expensive, herb liqueurs to top off a fine meal. Chartreuse should be drunk chilled or with an ice cube to release the full finesse of its bouquet.