GRENOBLE, France — When the world went into lockdowns this year, the monks of Chartreuse simply added another tick to their 900-year record of self-imposed isolation.
The Chartreux, also known as Carthusians, embrace a deeply ascetic existence in the western French Alps, observing customs that have barely changed since their order, one of Christianity’s oldest, was founded. They 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 cubby in their individual cells. 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. And once a week, they stroll in pairs through the forests fortifying the monastery.
This internal 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”).
“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 a 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 world a 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: “It’s like swallowing a sp-spectrum.” A Baltimore bartender and Chartreuse superfan, Brendan Finnerty, says it tastes “like Christmas in a glass,” or “grassy Jägermeister.” To me, it has the color and flavor of summer sunlight striking a canopy of leaves — impossibly vibrant, sparkling with life, green beyond belief.
When France went into pandemic confinement in mid-March and again this fall, little changed at the Chartreuse monastery or its production site — even as the country’s winemakers and producers of other liquors, such as Cognac, Cointreau and Armagnac, struggled.
France’s shutdowns, along with shelter-in-place orders across the United States and Europe, 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.” This year, the enterprise has pivoted from the service industry to wine merchants and liquor stores, hoping to place Chartreuse in household cabinets and bar carts.
The enterprise has also upheld its founding mission of good will and benevolence throughout the pandemic, donating a portion of sales to a bartender relief program and gifting 10,000 liters of pure alcohol to Grenoble’s hospital for much-needed sanitizer. The monks also sacrificed their weekly social walks, in solidarity with the outside world.
“We’re separated from all but participate through our prayer,” said Michael Holleran, a Catholic priest in New York City and a former Carthusian who was at the Grande Chartreuse, the order’s head monastery, during other world-shaping moments, including the Challenger space shuttle explosion and the fall of the Berlin Wall.
For now, the liqueur company has to follow the path of its founders and remain patient. “We have to learn to live with the virus,” Mr. Rochez said, and that will take time. At Chartreuse, luckily, there’s nothing but.
“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 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 (138-proof) Elixir Végétal, which a lone monk, Frère Charles, delivered on mule to nearby towns and villages. In 1840, they formulated a milder, 55 percent alcohol version, Green Chartreuse, and a sweeter, 40 percent Yellow Chartreuse. Both have become popular cocktail ingredients, while the Elixir continues to be sold medicinally for ailments such as indigestion, sore throat and nausea.
Today, the order sells about 1.5 million bottles of its three hallmark products annually, with the yellow and green liqueurs going for about $60, and cask-aged versions for $180 or more. About half its production run is sold in France, with the United States the largest export market.
Royalties go back to 380-some Carthusian monks and nuns residing in 22 charter houses spread across the globe, including Argentina, Brazil, Britain, Germany, Italy, Slovenia, South Korea, Spain 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 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.
“It’s safe with me,” he said. “Oddly enough, they didn’t make me sign anything when I left.”
This trade secret is both a marketing coup and a potential catastrophe. “I really have no idea what it is I sell,” a Chartreuse Diffusion president told The New Yorker in 1984. “I am very scared always. 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.”
Beyond the two monks who now protect it, all the others — Carthusian or not — involved in the production of Chartreuse know only fragments of the recipe.
Inside the Grande Chartreuse, skilled monks receive, measure and sort 130 unlabeled plants and herbs into giant unmarked (or, in 2020, QR-coded) sacks. Then, at the distillery, five non-Carthusian employees work alongside two white-robed monks to macerate, distill, blend and age the liqueur. A computerized system also allows them to virtually monitor the distilling from the monastery.
Along its five-week distilling process, and throughout the subsequent years of aging, those two monks are also the ones who taste the product and decide when it is ready to bottle and sell. “They are the quality control,” said Emmanuel Delafon, the current C.E.O. of Chartreuse Diffusion.
The order owns the diffusion company almost exclusively, and works with the business’s secular employees, who carry out the tasks too foreign to the order’s hermetic vocation.
“It’s their product, and we’re at their service,” Mr. Delafon said. “They need it to maintain their financial independence. They trust us to make the link between monastic life and everything else.”
The Year of Covid
This was never going to be a normal year for Chartreuse.
Since 1935, the city of Voiron has served as the liqueur’s main manufacturing site. But in 2011, Mr. Delafon said, regional officials tightened distilling regulations, mostly aimed at the hazards — fires and vapor-fueled explosions, notably — of making such high-proof alcohol. After all, at 138 proof, the Elixir barely escapes the International Civil Aviation Organization’s threshold for dangerous goods.
Officials, more or less, deemed the Chartreuse distillery a refinery dangerously close to schools and homes. “It was the Eiffel Tower of Voiron, and then it became a problem,” Mr. Delafon said. “Completely unsupportable.”
Chartreuse looked for a new production home, and settled on a plot of land previously owned and farmed by the Carthusians starting in the 16th century. In 2017, they officially moved the distillation from Voiron to rural Aiguenoire, a 15-minute drive from Chartreuse’s mountainside headquarters and three kilometers from the source of water used to make the liqueur.
“The Carthusians came home,” Mr. Delafon said.
Since then, the company has slowly retired the Voiron production site. In early September, a few months behind schedule, the company finally moved the entire process — from distillation to bottling — to the $20 million Aiguenoire site.
The pandemic slowed, but didn’t halt, this transition. Covid-19 did, however, completely disrupt the trek that Chartreuse makes from Aiguenoire to consumers, especially overseas, where the company has been making inroads for more than a century.
In 1912, a dessert of peaches swimming in a Chartreuse gelée made history as one of the final first-class dishes served aboard the Titanic. Before and during Prohibition, some Americans encountered Chartreuse through the Last Word, a cocktail developed at the Detroit Athletic Club and sold for 35 cents, a tidy sum in 1916 and over $8 in inflation-adjusted terms. A few decades later, in the 1980s, another Chartreuse cocktail — the pineapple-juice-based Swampwater — enjoyed brief popularity among college-age drinkers.
The mixology renaissance of the 2000s reopened the door for unique spirits like Chartreuse. A “bartender’s darling,” it’s often served in cocktails, on the rocks or in liqueur-infused desserts, said Tim Master, senior spirits director for Frederick Wildman, the sole Chartreuse importer in the United States.
The trendiness of artisanal, small-batch booze — along with the liqueur’s unusual color, flavor and history — has helped keep Chartreuse relevant despite its age.
“We’re conscious of the size of our business: If you’re small, you have to be different,” Mr. Rochez said. “The advantage we have in the world of spirits is our name.”
In San Francisco, the Saratoga, which remains temporarily closed because of the pandemic, boasts a selection of 40 different Chartreuses dating from 1878. The Passenger in Washington, D.C., has kept its chilled Chartreuse on tap for years.
Mr. Finnerty, the Baltimore bartender, and Randal Etheridge said that before the pandemic, they went through just shy of a case of it a week at their bar, Idle Hour.
At first, “we were trying to shock people with 110-proof liqueur no one had heard of before,” Mr. Finnerty said. “It was fun to turn people onto it.”
During the pandemic, Idle Hour operates a small outdoor patio and offers takeout options — including Chartreuse bottles and 50-milliliter test tube shots.
“Even in the pandemic, we’re still selling a lot of Chartreuse,” Mr. Etheridge said. “We’re just selling it to go.”
That’s the kind of story Mr. Rochez and Mr. Master love to hear. But many Americans have probably enjoyed the taste of Chartreuse in mixed drinks without ever learning its name. At the pandemic’s onset, the challenge of persuading consumers to stock up their homes with the acid-green liqueur without the help of bartenders, sommeliers or mixologists was daunting, Mr. Rochez said.
“It’s been a challenge: Half of the wine and spirits business is basically shut,” Mr. Master said. “We have to sell smart. What we’ve seen is retail store sales spiking. People are not going out to dinner or out for drinks, so they’re drinking at home.”
In France, Mr. Delafon has kept teasing out plans to diversify Chartreuse’s product line. With the growing concerns over the health effects of sugar and alcohol, two major ingredients in liqueur, the company is exploring other potential 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 thousand-year history, the order has recovered from natural disasters, government expulsions, pestilence, poverty and impostors.
“Every time they’ve lifted themselves up, recovered and redefined themselves,” Ms. Druzkowski, the documentary maker, said.
That willingness to transform while remaining loyal to the order’s legacy is both a luxury and a safeguard during times of turmoil, Mr. Delafon said.
“When you have roots this deep,” he said, “it allows you to forget the short term and project your vision far in the future.”
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