Silent Monks Keep Chartreuse Recipe Secret for Centuries

A firm may not need to patent its invention if it can keep the invention’s construction secret because its workers are isolated loners who view each other as brothers. Otherwise, good luck.

(p. 6) 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.

. . .

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.

. . .

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.”

. . .

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.

. . .

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.

. . .

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.

. . .

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 wa-(p. 7)ter used to make the liqueur.

“The Carthusians came home,” Mr. Delafon said.

. . .

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.”

For the full story, see:

Marion Renault. “Where Life, And an Elixir, Are Timeless.” The New York Times, SundayBusiness Section (Sunday, December 20, 2020): 6-7.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Dec. 17, 2020, and has the title “An Elixir From the French Alps, Frozen in Time.”)

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