Still-Secret Formulas : Chartreuse: Only Monks Do It Right

Times Staff Writer

In the pharmacies of Europe, you can still pick up a short, stubby bottle of "The Plant Elixir of the Grande Chartreuse," a powerful health tonic made by monks from flowers and plants and fueled by its 71% alcohol content.

This is the elixir for long life that the monks of the Grande Chartreuse concocted from an old recipe in 1737 to revive the declining economy of their monastery here in the mountains of southeastern France. The elixir was developed later by the monks into the popular French liqueur Chartreuse. The liqueur, in fact, gave its name to the color of the drink--a light, yellow-tinged green.

Chartreuse is hardly the best-selling liqueur of France. Cointreau, for example, reports sales of 20 times as many bottles a year. But Chartreuse may have the most romantic history. It is a history, in fact, bound up with the power of the Roman Catholic Church in France and the anti-clerical forces that struck out at that power around the turn of this century.

'Zone of Silence'

The present, however, is harder to penetrate than the past. To see the Monastery of the Grande Chartreuse on the lower reaches of the Grand Som Mountain, a visitor must park two miles west of St. Pierre de Chartreuse and hike a mile on a curving, rocky forest path through what is marked on several signposts as a "zone of silence."

Beneath the awesome beauty of snow-capped, craggy summits, the visitor may then peek through cracks in the doors of the walls surrounding the 300-year-old monastery buildings but may not enter. The monastery is closed to outsiders.

Chartreuse liqueur is not distilled and stored there, in any case. A company owned by the monastery produces, stores and markets Chartreuse and its variations from a distillery in the town of Voiron 15 miles to the west. Young women in chartreuse-colored dresses take tourists on guided tours past the enormous barrels in the storage cellars and the ovens in the distillery, but the tourists do not always see the three hooded monks who come every day with their still-secret formula to supervise the distillation.

1 Million Bottles

According to Chartreuse-Diffusion, the company that handles the production and marketing, the distillery at Voiron produces 1 million bottles of liqueur and elixirs a year. Most of it is what is known as Green Chartreuse and Yellow Chartreuse. Green Chartreuse, with a 55% alcoholic content, is the most powerful liqueur made in France. Yellow Chartreuse, with 40% alcohol, is more like other French liqueurs: Benedictine, for example, has an alcoholic content of 44%; Cointreau and Grand Marnier, 40%.

Half the bottles of Chartreuse are sold in France, the other half exported. The largest foreign customer is the United States, which imports 15% to 17% of what is produced at Voiron.

Surprisingly, the Voiron plant still produces 100,000 bottles a year of the old original Plant Elixir, which is sold in pharmacies throughout Europe as a tonic or a digestive. But none go to the United States. While there are many claims for the elixir as a kind of cure-all, there is no proven medicinal value. "We have trouble with your food and drug laws," a spokeswoman for Chartreuse-Diffusion said.

The Order of the Chartreux, as it is officially known, was founded 901 years ago by St. Bruno and six other monks looking for what they called a "desert" of solitude in the Chartreuse region of the Alps just north of Grenoble. In French, the word Chartreux is now used to describe the order or its members, while the word Chartreuse is used to describe either the liqueur or a monastery of the order.

The order is regarded as one of the most austere in the world since the monks remain in isolation from each other most of the time. There are only 397 members of the order living in 17 monasteries throughout the world, with the Grande Chartreuse here still serving as headquarters. The main monastery has been destroyed several times over the year by fire, and the present buildings date from the end of the 17th Century.

For Kings, Crusaders

For centuries, the monks earned their living by making armor and other metal products for knights, kings and Crusaders, but the Industrial Revolution passed the monastery by in the 18th Century. The monks found themselves unable to compete with the cheaper steel made in the newly industrialized towns of France.

More than a hundred years earlier, the monks had received a secret formula from an officer of King Henry IV for the manufacture of an elixir for long life but had done nothing with it.

In 1737, Brother Jerome Maubec, the pharmacist of the monastery, experimented with the formula and modified it, developing an elixir by distilling 130 flowers and plants. This became "The Plant Elixir of the Grande Chartreuse." The monks and many outsiders attributed great curative powers to the elixir, and once it was even used as a medicine for cholera.

The elixir has a fiery, medicinal flavor, not suitable for social drinking, and Maubec's successor as pharmacist, Brother Antoine, sweetened it and developed the liqueur now known as Green Chartreuse. It was described by the monks then as a "liqueur of health." But the monastery still earned little income from the elixir and its liqueur of health.

Sweeter, Less Powerful

The French Revolution of 1789 closed the monastery and dispersed the monks to other countries. When the monks returned in the early 19th Century, they developed the sweeter, less powerful Yellow Chartreuse. French soldiers in the area began to buy the liqueur, and a brisk business began, though still limited to customers who were willing to come by the monastery and pick up the bottles there.

By 1852, however, the monks registered the trademark of Chartreuse with the French government and began commercial sales in earnest, building a distillery a few miles away. But this came to a halt in 1903 when France passed a series of anti-clerical laws. The government seized the monastery and turned it into a vacation camp for students, and the monks again left France.

The liqueur Chartreuse had troubled times. A private company vainly tried to imitate it at the old distillery while the monks used their secret formula to produce a Chartreuse liquor at their monastery in Tarragona, Spain. Under French law, however, they had to market their Spanish product under a name other than Chartreuse. They called it Tarragona.

The private company, unable to duplicate the real Chartreuse, failed in 1929, and the monks were allowed to buy back their old distillery. After a mud slide destroyed the distillery in 1935, they moved the operation to Voiron in 1935.

During World War II, the monks returned as well to their old monastery of Grande Chartreuse. This part of France was not occupied by the Nazis then and was ruled by the extreme right, pro-church Vichy government of Marshal Philippe Petain.

A Split Shift

After the war, the monks resumed production of Chartreuse at the Voiron distillery and also kept the Tarragona distillery open to produce Chartreuse for export to Latin America. The same three monks who run the distillery in Voiron spend a few days of the year supervising the operation in Tarragona.

There may a bit of sensitivity among the members of the order about their production of the most powerful liqueur in France. The French drink more alcohol than any other people and have the highest rate of deaths from cirrhosis of the liver.

"If we thought that the suppression of Chartreuse liquor would solve the problem of alcoholism," one of the highest-ranking priests in the monastery was quoted as saying in a recent book, "we would not hesitate for an instant to make the sacrifice." But he said that regulations and prohibitions have never prevented alcoholism.

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