The 1605 Manuscript and the  Secret of the "Elixir of Long Life"

    In 1605, Francois Hannibal d’Estrees, marshal of the king’s artillery, gave the Carthusian fathers at their monastery in Vauvert, near Paris, an already ancient manuscript bearing the title
"Elixir of Long Life." 

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


Brother Maubec Early in the 18th century, Brother Maubec undertook the task of unraveling 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 what he had learned 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. 

Green Chartreuse -- a milder and smoother form of the elixir at only 55 percent alcohol -- was developed shortly after distilling began. And, in 1838, Yellow Chartreuse -- even milder, smoother and sweeter at 40 percent alcohol -- was introduced.
    When the French Revolution erupted in 1789, the Carthusian monks (like all religious orders in France) had to scatter away from their monastery. In the turbulence of the times, the manuscript faced the danger of being taken from the Carthusians; and this calamity did, indeed, happen.

One of the Carthusian fathers concealed the manuscript on his person to protect it. But, alas, the authorities arrested him. He was sent to jail in Bordeaux. Fortunately, his jailers did not search him and he managed to slip the precious document to a priest on the verge of being released.

 The need to survive forced the new savior to sell it so he could buy bread and soup in order to live. 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, endorsed it "Refused". Some years after Napoleon left power, the Carthusians were welcomed back to France, regained possession of the manuscript and resumed distilling the elixir and liqueurs.

    In 1848, 30 officers from the Army of the Alps, stationed nearby 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 30 officers here and our duties shall carry us to many other places, many other countries. Wherever we 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 always be on his table.
    The world-wide reputation of the Chartreuse liqueurs gave the Carthusians a high profile in France and the government coveted the profits the monks realized. 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 ownership of 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 labors of these three monks that provide the Carthusians the sustenance to pursue their quiet lives of meditation and prayer.

History Part 1  |   Top of the page   |   History Part 2