Medicinal Liqueurs: Benedictine and chartreuse.


Many liqueurs were invented in medieval monasteries by studious, curious, and medicinally inclined monks. Most were French, but Italian, German, Spanish monks contributed to the panoply of liqueurs, some of which are still being marketed by companies specially set up to look after promotion and distribution.

Benedictine and Chartreuse are two of the more famous medicinal liqueurs invented by monks.

On Benedictine bottles, can be found the letter D O M (Deo Optima Maximo = To God most good most graceful).

Benedictine is amber in colour. Its base is cognac infused with 27 herbs, barks and seeds. The recipe is still secret, but a secular company in Fecamp, Normandy produces the liqueur where Benedictine brother Bernardo Vincelli invented it.

Some of the herbs and spices in Benedictine are: melissa, arnica, hyssop, Maidenhair Fern, vanilla, artemisia, myrrh, coriander, nutmeg, cardamom, pine cone, angelica root, aloe, mace, saffron and grain seeds. At any one time, only three monks know the full recipe.

Benedictine was first made in 1510 and “approved” by Francois I, King of France, in 1534.

Unfortunately, the monastery was destroyed during the French revolution, and for 70 years Benedictine completely vanished from the market.

The formula, however, was not lost since it eventually fell into the hands of a Monsieur Alexander Le Grand, a scholar who found a copy of it in a collection of manuscripts and records. That was in 1863, and le Grand set himself the task of launching the production of Benedictine on a secular and commercial basis.

The company is now housed in sumptuous buildings and there is a museum in Fecamp that is well worth a visit.

Benedictine is rather sweet and a few years ago the directors of the company discovered that many consumers were mixing it with brandy to render it drier. As a consequence, they decided to produce their own blend of Benedictine and brandy, which is marketed as B and B. The blend has become even more popular than the original liqueur.

The company has no connection with the religious order. It is marketed in France and exported to over 60 countries worldwide.

Chartreuse on the other hand, is still produced by Carthusian brothers of Chartreuse at Grenoble and marketed by a secular company – Diffusion Chartreuse – also located in the eponymous city.

There are two types of Chartreuse: yellow (43 per cent ABV) and green (55 per cent ABV). The recipe was given to Carthusian fathers of the Convent of the Grand Chartreuse at Grenoble in 1605 by Marechal d’Estrees.

The formula was modified after 150 years by one of the brothers, Jerome Maubec. The liqueur was first reserved for the enjoyment of the holy brothers, but its fame quietly spread to the outside world by word of mouth.

Both liqueurs quickly became popular, but have gone through a tumultuous period. During the French Revolution, the monastery was spared, but both recipes were “requisitioned” by the Ministry of Secret Remedies; they turned up in 1810 in secret files.

The minister at the time failed to recognize the commercial importance and potential of both recipes, and returned them to the holy fathers. After this “happy” coincidence, Chartreuse was produced in the monastery, but at the beginning of the 20th century another set back occurred.

After the French government passed a law banning religious orders which forced the fathers to emigrate to Tarragona in Spain.

The monastery was auctioned, but the clever fathers had taken their secret recipes with them in their heads. The new owners produced

Chartreuse, but the product bore little resemblance to the original. Although the Carthuisan fathers produced their liqueurs in Tarragona they were not allowed to use the name because it was trademarked in France. Instead, the bottles were marked Liqueur fabriquee a Tarragon par les Pere Chartreux.

Over time, with a lot of legal efforts, the good fathers of Chartreuse obtained the right to produce their famous liqueurs in Voiron, France. Still today, only the most trusted monks are allowed to produce the liqueurs, the recipes of which are only known to three individuals at anyone time. They never travel togther.

Of the two, Chartreuse jaune (yellow) is the sweeter and contains less alcohol.

Chartreuse vert tastes more medicinal and is dry. The base of this liqueur contains more herbs and fewer spices, extracted by maceration and distillation.

Both Chartreuse liqueurs are aged prior to bottling.

Benedictine and Chartreuse liqueurs are highly versatile, yet they can be enjoyed on their own in brandy snifters after long and rich meals.

Those who suffer from “weak” stomachs swear by Chartreuse green, and those who enjoy a liqueur with their coffee praise Chartreuse jaune.

Benedictine is generally enjoyed after a fine, gourmet, and extended meal, in cocktails, or in desserts.

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