In 2005 there was a movie called Into Great Silence, a documentary about the lives of Carthusian monks of the Grand Chartreuse monastery. The life of the monks is similar to the stereotypes, which includes living in relative silence, extensive study and meditation, and manual labor. All of this occurs in relative solitude.
What wasn’t shown in the movie was one of the more famous fruits of the monk’s manual labor, their production of the liqueur Chartreuse.
In 1605 at a Chartreuse monastery in Vauvert, the monks received a gift from the marshal of artillery for King Henri IV, Francois Hannibal d’ Estrees. Msr. d’ Estrees, in return for the good fortune that life had bestown upon him, wanted to give back something to God. So to the monks he gave an ancient recipe entitled “An Elixir of Long Life”.
The recipe was extremely complex, containing over one hundred and thirty ingredients, all of which were either natural plants, herbs or other botanicals that were suspended in wine alcohol. The recipe was studied exhaustively, but only bits and pieces of it were understood. It wasn’t until 1737 when the monastery’s apothecary, FrÃ¨re Jerome Maubec, was able to figure out how to produce the elixir.
Like most liqueurs, it was first sold and used purely for medicinal purposes. Of course, being 71 per cent alcohol by volume, it did more than just cure what ailed. It got many folks drunk and increased sales of the “medicine”. The monks, being the savvy folks that they were, then decided to make a drinking version of the elixir. In 1764, they produced a milder beverage which we know today as “Green Chartreuse” liqueur – 55 per cent alcohol, 110 proof.
Here’s where the story gets interesting. After the French Revolution, all religious orders were ordered out of the country. Some folks stayed, but most left for Switzerland, Spain and other parts of Europe. The Chartreuse monks left in 1793, taking a copy of the recipe with them. The original recipe was left behind where it was to be protected by one of their order who stayed behind. Alas, it wasn’t long before he was captured and sent packing to prison, but not before he was able to send the recipe to another of their order who was in hiding.
This monk, not knowing what he had and unable to make the recipe himself, sold it to a local pharmacist who was also unable to make heads or tales of the recipe.
When the monks were able to return to the monastery in 1816, the pharmacist returned the recipe to them. Production of Chartreuse started again, and it’s popularity increased.
At least until 1903, when the French tried to nationalize the Chartreuse distillery. Once again, the monks were expelled and the government tried to take over the production. The governemt then sold the trademark “Chartreuse” to a group of liqueur distillers called Compagnie Fermiere de la Grande Chartreuse. But since they did not have the original recipe, the liqueur made by this company had no semblance of the spirit made by the monks.
The monks, however, had moved on. They had opened shop in Tarragona, Spain and resumed selling their liqueur under a new na,e.
Compagnie Fermiere de la Grande Chartreuse failed and went bankrupt in 1929. When the company sold off their assets, the monks purchased the trademark for “Chartreuse”.
After World War II, the French Government lifted the expulsion orders of 1903, and the monks returned to their monastery where they continue to make the drink to this day.