The drinking habit
The Carthusian Order of cloistered monks combines two fascinating threads. On the one hand the Carthusians are contemplatives who live under austere conditions while dedicating their lives to living in solitude, and listening in silence to God. On the other hand three monks of the order are entrusted with the formula and key production process for creating the hugely popular Chartreuse liqueur which is named after their mother house.
In June 1084 a German monk called Bruno (later Saint Bruno) with six companions founded the refuge that was to become the monastery of La Grande Chartreuse in the mountains near Grenoble. This was followed by a monastery at Calibria in Italy in 1101. At the time of the dissolution of the monasteries in England in 1535 monks from the Carthusian London Charterhouse and its sister houses uniquely refused to reject papal authority as demanded by the Treason Act passed by Henry Vlllth and Thomas Cromwell. As a result six of the monks were cruelly executed in their white habits in the Tower of London.
Today the Carthusians still follow their regime of solitude and silence alone in self-contained cells, with food being passed to them through hatchways. Except for when they attend Mass, Vespers, and the evening Office the monks spend their time working, praying, and eating alone. This austerity is carried through to their sung liturgy with the organ and polyphony expressly forbidden from the Holy Offices.
This severe lifestyle seems to do little harm. According to a story told by the Carthusians a pope felt the rule was too severe, and asked for it to be modified. To defend themselves from the changes a delegation of twenty-seven Carthusians travelled to Rome. When the pontiff found that the youngest in the group was eighty-eight years old, and the oldest ninety-five he dropped his request for reform.
The Carthusian's life of contemplation has remained virtually unchanged over the last 900 years, whereas the history of Chartreuse liqueur has been somewhat more chequered. In 1605 a Carthusian monastery at Vauvert near Paris was given an ancient manuscript recording the formula for 'an elixir for long life'. The complexity of the formula was beyond the monk's capabilites, and it was not until 1737 that the first Chartreuse was successfully distilled. The original formula is still used by the monks to produce the exclusive Elixir Vegetal de la Grande-Chartreuse which is 71% alcohol by volume, 142 proof!
The monks adapted this formula to make the liqueur we know today as Green Chartresuse which is 55% alcohol and 110 proof. When the French Revolution erupted in 1789 the monks were dispersed, and the formula was hidden until production restarted in 1816. But in 1903 the monastic brew was again under threat as the French government nationalised the distillery and monastery, and sold the traemark to a private distillery. With typically Gallic flair for the absurd the privatised enterprise then went bankrupt; and supporters of the monks bought the moribund business and presented it back to the monks where it has remained to today. A new distillery was built in Voiron in the 1930's, but the selection of the secret herbs, plants and other ingredients remains safely in the monastery in the hands of just three monks.