The story of Chartreuse


Bruno (later Saint Bruno), whose small community of devout Catholic hermits in the 11th century grew to become today's Carthusian Order, was born in Cologne, Germany, circa 1032. Young Bruno was educated at the Cathedral in Rheims, France, where he was later appointed professor. In 1056 he became rector of the University of Rheims.  He had a profound influence on his students and his fellow faculty members. During thirty years in Rheims, he took on ever-increasing responsibilities in the diocese and was the holder of many church and secular honours. 


In 1084, God called Bruno to the monastic life. He resigned his post and, with six like-minded companions, travelled across France to Grenoble.  Hughes, the Bishop of Grenoble, welcomed them and related a recent personal dream in which God appeared, building a place of worship in the Chartreuse Mountains, an inhospitable and secluded wilderness in the nearby Alps. In this dream, seven stars hung over the exact spot God had chosen for a structure. Surely, the Bishop said, Bruno and his six companions were the tools God had chosen to bring that dream to life.


Hughes led the seven to the Chartreuse Mountain and Bruno immediately recognized the isolated and secluded area as ideal for the monastic life of contemplative prayer and meditation he desired. 


The seven monks quickly built individual wooden huts with a gallery linking them to a chapel and a few other buildings for communal life: Bruno felt it necessary to temper the isolation of the monastic life with short periods of brotherly companionship and communal activities. 


The monks then retired to their individual huts, each consecrating his life to meditation and prayer in solitude.


Saint Bruno was allowed to stay in Chartreuse only six years: a former pupil from Rheims had become Pope Urban II and requested that Bruno come to Rome. Bruno left his beloved mountain retreat and went to the Papal Court. Urban II later allowed Bruno to set up a new monastery in Calabria where he could enjoy

some of the precious isolation he needed for prayers and meditation. Bruno died in Calabria in 1101. 


At the time of Bruno’s death, no rules of conduct for the monks had been committed to writing. Guigues, the fifth Prior of the Order, framed the “Customs of the Carthusian Order” between 1121 and 1128. The growth of the number of Carthusian monasteries throughout Europe had made it necessary to set down, in writing, the customs of life and conduct, which had been observed at La Grande Chartreuse, the Order’s mother house since Bruno and his six companions settled there in 1084.


While containing extensive details about the manner in which a monk should lead his life, the statutes communicated an explicit spirit embracing not only the solitary life, the silence of the cell, continual prayer, thoughtful meditation and humble work, but also brotherly life, liturgical prayer in groups, obedience to the Prior of each monastery and obedience to the Father Superior of the Order and the General Chapter, which is the supreme authority of the Order. 


The vocation of both the Carthusian Fathers and the Brothers are identical: both are contemplative, having totally consecrated their existence to the worship of God and to intersession on behalf of all of mankind. 


The Fathers, all of whom have been called to the priesthood, live mainly in the isolation and silence of their cells. The Brothers, who do not receive Holy Orders, spend part of their contemplative life performing the work necessary to maintain life in the monastery. Both the Fathers and the Brothers are properly called       "monks." 


The reclusion of the Carthusian monks throughout the world is neither a retreat nor a resignation. Quite the contrary, their prayers, in the seclusion of their cells where they live uncontaminated by the secular world, are a gift of the monks’ lives, an act of charity towards all mankind. 


In this constantly changing modern world in which we live, The Carthusian Order bears witness to the universal quest for an ideal of truth and for mystical fulfilment.


When Bruno and his six companions arrived in the Chartreuse Mountain in 1084, the area, while ideal for monastic solitude, was a wilderness not easily accessible and not favourable for habitation. In order to live there, these first Carthusian monks had to make the land more hospitable. They cleared the area of its trees

to be able to grow crops and put a few head of livestock to pasture.


The tall, straight and sturdy pine trees of incredible girth, they harvested from the forests around their settlement, proved to be an economic Godsend. The monks sold these trees as boat masts to the expanding French sailing fleets.


During their recreational walks, the monks discovered that the mountains were rich in iron ore. Another Godsend! They processed wood from the local forest into charcoal. Water in the nearby raging mountain streams provided energy. They extracted ore from the mines. They became ‘iron masters’ and are recognized as being the initiators of modern metallurgy. 


At one time they operated as many as 11 blast furnaces and employed countless local labourers, whom they trained, and subsequently helped, set up their own workshops.


The quality of Carthusian iron and steel and the success of their enterprise provoked a certain amount of jealousy. The King of France ordered a reduction of the forests that could be harvested and used for fuel. As a result, the iron and steel production of the Carthusians slid into a steep decline.


In 1735, the replacement of charcoal with coal for production of cast iron dealt the monastery’s metallurgical industry a severe blow. The restrictions placed upon the monks made fuel supplies impossible. One by one the blast furnaces were shut down. The last one was shut down in 1792, during the French Revolution.

But wrought iron grills, gates, hinges, and doorknobs struck with the “Globe and Cross”, the Carthusian hallmark, can be found throughout the towns and villages, in and around the Chartreuse Mountains.


The demise of iron and steel forging forced the monks to look elsewhere for an income to support the order. They found it in the archives of La Grande Chartreuse, their motherhouse.


In 1605, Francois Hannibal d’Estrees, Marshal of the King’s Artillery, had given the Carthusians an already ancient manuscript titled "Elixir of Long Life." ...In 1737, when the esoteric manuscript was finally deciphered, the monks became distillers. Their first product was the medicinal elixir described in that original manuscript. In 1764 they created what is today’s Green Chartreuse, (55% alcohol) a milder and smoother form of the elixir. Then in 1838 they created Yellow Chartreuse, (40% alcohol) an even milder, smoother and sweeter liqueur.


Following the initial use of portions of the recipe at Vauvert, the manuscript was sent to La Grande Chartreuse.  As in all monasteries there was an apothecary at La Grande Chartreuse. It was Brother Jerome Maubec, who looked after the medical needs of the monastery and the local residents with remedies made from local herbs, spices and other ingredients.


Early in the 18th century, Brother Maubec undertook the task of unravelling the manuscript’s complex directions for compounding the "Elixir of Long Life". Brother Maubec died before completing this challenge but, on his deathbed, he passed his knowledge on to his successor, Brother Antoine.  Brother Antoine completed the translation of the recipe in 1737 and, although it apparently did not prolong life, with 130 herbs and spices infused into a base of 71 percent wine alcohol, it did have many curative powers. The monks became distillers of this medicinal elixir.


When the French Revolution erupted in 1789, the Carthusian monks (like all religious orders in France) were scattered from their monastery. The manuscript was almost taken from the Carthusians in these turbulent times. One of the Carthusian fathers concealed the manuscript on his person but was arrested by the authorities. He was sent to gaol in Bordeaux. Fortunately, his gaolers did not search him and he managed to slip the precious document to a priest due to be released from prison.


The need to survive forced the new saviour to sell the manuscript. The new owner surrendered it, as required by Emperor Napoleon, to the "Secret Remedies Commission". 


Again, fortune intervened: the commission, finding the recipe too complex, stamped it "Rejected". Some years after Napoleon’s demise, the Carthusians were welcomed back to France, regained possession of the manuscript and resumed distilling the elixir and liqueurs.


In 1848 thirty officers from the Army of the Alps, stationed near the monastery, were invited to a tasting of Yellow Chartreuse. "Reverend Father," said the group’s senior officer, "This Yellow Chartreuse is indeed a nectar. The world must learn of its exquisite taste and its benefits to one’s health. There are thirty officers here and our duties will carry us to many distant places. Wherever we will go, we shall demand Chartreuse. Prepare yourself to fill many bottles." The success of these "military salesmen" was astounding and the fame of Chartreuse liqueurs spread throughout Europe.


By the beginning of the 20th century, millions of bottles of Chartreuse liqueurs were being sold all over the world. Even the Russian Tsar, Nicolas II, insisted that a bottle of Chartreuse be always on his table. The worldwide reputation of the Chartreuse liqueurs gave the Carthusians a high profile in France and the government coveted the monk’s profits.


In 1904, the French government nationalized both the monastery and the distillery. The monks, unwilling to give up the secret of making Chartreuse, fled to a Carthusian monastery in Tarragona, Spain where they built a new distillery.


The French government brought chemists, botanists and other experts to the distillery and to the monastery where, in an attempt to recreate Chartreuse, they searched the bins where the plants, herbs and spices had been stored. Despite this massive effort, they failed. The public wanted the genuine liqueur and ignored the counterfeit beverage made by the government’s company.


With a lack of sales, the French company, counterfeiting Chartreuse, could not survive. Local citizens in the area of the monastery bought the failed company and returned it, as a gift, to the Carthusians.


Today, although the monastery has been designated a national monument by the French government, the monks are allowed to live there.


Three of the monks, who have been trained by their predecessors in the art of distilling Chartreuse, occasionally leave their cells for a short period of time and make the liqueurs. They then return to the solitude of their cells.


It is the labours of these three monks that provide the Carthusians with the sustenance to pursue their quiet lives of meditation and prayer.



Green and Yellow Chartreuse


Chartreuse V.E.P. (Vieillissement Exceptionnellement Prolongé) is made by the same process as the as the traditional liqueurs but by extra long ageing in oak casks it reaches and exceptional quality.


Liqueur du 9° Centenaire, (9th Centenary Liqueur) was created in 1984 to commemorate the 900th year of the founding of the Grande Chartreuse Monastery in 1084.


Elixir Végétal: Made by the Chartreuse Monks since 1737 according to the instructions set out in the secret manuscript given to them by the Maréchal d”Eistrées in 1605. It gets its unique flavour from 130 medicinal and aromatic plants and flowers. It is a cordial, a liqueur and an effective tonic.