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

January 03, 1986|STANLEY MEISLER | Times Staff Writer

ST. PIERRE DE CHARTREUSE, France — 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.

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