BEHIND THE GRAY stone walls of the 900-year-old Grande Chartreuse monastery, high in the French Alps, two monks dry, crush, and sort 130 herbs and spices into burlap bags. The "plants room" where they work is accessible to them alone, because they are the only people on Earth who know exactly which ingredients are in Chartreuse, the bright-green liqueur produced exclusively by their religious community.
Beneath their robes, Father Benoit and Brother Jean-Jacques wear rough sackcloth shirts meant to prevent them from ever getting too comfortable. They are among the 30 or so monks who live in almost total silence on the premises--vowed members of the Carthusians, often referred to as the most ascetic of the Catholic monastic orders. In her book An Infinity of Little Hours, Nancy Klein Maguire calls these men the "Church's green berets" because of their strict commitment to minimal speech, their vegetarian diet, and their practice of waking up to pray in the middle of the night--a "special responsibility...of being on duty, on call, keeping watch" when the rest of the world is asleep. According to legend, a French general in 1605 presented the Carthusians with an ancient manuscript containing a recipe for an "elixir of long life." After more than a century of trial and error, the motherhouse's apothecary perfected the medicinal concoction in 1737. It would be produced on site until 1860, when a distillery was constructed nearby.
What started as medical ministry to local villagers is now a global luxury brand. Some 1.5 million bottles were sold in 100 countries last year, primarily for use in high-end cocktails and as an aperitif.
The industrious Carthusians of Grande Chartreuse, like their beer-brewing Trappist brethren and countless other religious communities, might be considered the original conscious capitalists. They have survived war, exile, natural disasters (one of their distilleries was destroyed in an Alpine landslide in 1935), and challenges to their intellectual property rights. Balancing the austere demands of their faith with the whims of an international marketplace, these monks maintain what may look to outsiders like an improbable balance between the Christian and capitalist virtues.
FROM MEDICINE TO FANCY COCKTAILS
BOOZE PRODUCTION IS an age-old tradition for Catholic monks, especially in Europe. "They had vast tracts of land for planting grapes or barley, a long institutional memory through which special knowledge could be handed down and perfected, a facility for teamwork and a commitment to excellence in even the smallest of chores as a means of glorifying God," wrote the Baylor theologian Michael Foley in 2017.
There was a major practical consideration as well: During the period when monastic alcohol making began, "it was better to drink beer than water for sanitary reasons," explains Fabrice Bordon, a brand ambassador for the Trappist beer Chimay. "The process of making beer purified all the ingredients."
In the 11th century, Arnold of Soissons--now known as the patron saint of hop pickers and beer brewers--is credited with encouraging the Christians living near his abbey to drink beer instead of water. "He served them with his alcoholic brews," explained a 2016 article for The Vintage News, "and many of the people in the town survived the plague."
We know the Chartreuse elixir was initially developed as a medicine, and "the very first recorded instance of whiskey was in an Irish monastic manual, where it was described as, and I swear I'm not making this up, 'a cure for paralysis of the tongue,'" Foley says. "Into the 20th century, whiskey was used as an anesthetic for surgeries and for dressing wounds....Even bitters were invented and sold in pharmacy stores as a cure for seasickness."
Since Christians are called on to serve the needy in their communities, it makes sense that monastics at a time of rampant ill health would look for ways to combat disease and promote wellness.
"A long time ago, the monks would deliver medicines to the people at the door of the monastery," explains Maryline Boero, my tour guide on a June visit to the cellars...