“For a long time the secret of Chartreuse was the despair of the distilleries, just as the natural blue of the forget-me-nots was the despair of the painters,” states a document from 1886, which was referred to in a recent company and contract history. For five years, Father Holleran oversaw the distillation process, ordering ingredients and planning his production plans. When he left the premises in 1990, he was the only living outsider who knew the old formula of the liquor.
“It’s safe with me,” he said. “Oddly enough, they didn’t get me to sign anything when I left.”
This trade secret is both a marketing coup and a potential disaster. “I really have no idea what I’m selling,” a Chartreuse Diffusion president told The New Yorker in 1984. “I’m always very scared.” Only three of the brothers know how to do it – nobody knows the recipe. And every morning they go to the distillery together. And they drive a very old car. And they drive it very badly. “
Aside from the two monks who are now protecting it, everyone else – Carthusian or not – involved in the making of Chartreuse knows only fragments of the recipe.
In the Grande Chartreuse, experienced monks receive, measure and sort 130 unlabeled plants and herbs in huge, unlabelled (or QR-coded in 2020) bags. In the distillery, five non-Carthusian employees work together with two monks in white to macerate, distill, mix and age the liqueur. A computer system also enables them to virtually monitor the distillation from the monastery.
During the five-week distillation process and the years of aging that followed, these two monks are also the ones who taste the product and decide when it is ready to be bottled and sold. “You are quality control,” said Emmanuel Delafon, the current CEO of Chartreuse Diffusion.
The assignment is owned almost entirely by the diffusion company and works with the company’s secular employees who carry out the tasks that are too alien to the hermetic calling of the assignment.
“It is their product and we are at their service,” said Mr Delafon. “You need it to keep your financial independence. They trust us to make the connection between monastic life and everything else. “