"It was a business activity we did, and we dedicated ourselves to it as we did any activity. There was a sense of doing it for God and for the Order," says Father Michael Holleran, a parish priest in the Archdiocese of New York. "I went to the Father General sometimes reflecting on it. Should we really be producing luxury alcohol? Well, it's noble. And it's a beautiful thing. And it certainly has supported the Order."
In 1984, Father Michael arrived in Grand Chartreuse, a monastery that takes its name from the mountains it was founded in a millennium ago. Having finished his monastic training in Vermont, the young American monk had been sent to the seat of the Carthusian Order in Southeastern France.
"It was decided I could use some polishing in the Mother House," he explains.
Life at Grand Chartreuse carries on today much the same way as it had been described in Thomas Merton's The Silent Life, where Father Michael first read about the Carthusians. Monks still spend their days mostly in silence and solitude, engaged in prayer and an exploration of the interior life. They gather communally as required, for regimented constitutionals and discussions and prayer, and to take care of the necessary chores that keep the monastery operational. One of those chores is the production of one of the most famous spirits in the world.
Chartreuse even showed up in Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof, where the auteur himself slurs, 'The only liqueur so good they named a color after it.'
Chartreuse is iconic. By the 19th century, the herbal liqueur was a household name in Europe, famous enough to eventually find its way into American cocktail bars. It was called by name in Brideshead Revisited and The Lady Vanishes, before losing popularity like most quality liqueurs in the last half of the 20th century—a modern dark age for booze. Luckily, the revitalization of the American cocktail scene in the 21st century helped put the green elixir back in the spotlight of pop culture. It even showed up in Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof, where the auteur himself slurs, "The only liqueur so good they named a color after it."
"I wasn't the one who did the physical distilling. I was the one who was in charge of it," Father Michael says. "I arranged how much or when we would make it. I did the ordering for the ingredients and would liaison with our export branch."
In 1986, Father Michael was given the task of administrating the production of a 400-year-old alchemical elixir of longevity that also happened to be the greatest trade secret in the history of spirits.
"I had no particular training or interest in this liqueur, but it was a good job for me," he says. "It did provide the sort of balance I needed. I enjoyed it a lot."
The original recipe for Chartreuse was gifted to the Carthusian monks in 1605 by François Annibal d'Estrées, an army officer of Henry IV. The Order have kept the formula secret to this day, entrusting it to only a few monks responsible for its production at any given time.
"It says in the Book of Wisdom in the scriptures that Solomon was given … knowledge of secret virtues of plants and animals and constellations," says Father Michael. "So it's a very ancient tradition—the idea that those who lead a spiritual life, those who are contemplators and acquire some degree of wisdom, also know the secret mysteries of the universe and the virtues of plants."
The Order have kept the Chartreuse formula secret to this day, entrusting it to only a few monks responsible for its production at any given time.
The art of distillation and the history of alchemy are deeply entwined, dating back at least to the first century, when alchemists are known to have practiced it in Alexandria. It was thought of not just as a chemical process, where two liquids in solution can be separated by exploiting their varying boiling points, but as a metaphysical one, where the spiritual ideals of material things can be refined. The alembic still was probably invented by alchemists in Persia, and later passed down through Muslim alchemists who traded esoteric wisdom with Christian practitioners, often monks like the Carthusians.
"In my experience … we never talked about it," Father Michael says. It wasn't until years later when the priest read the Christian hermetic works such as Meditations on the Tarot and the writings of Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung that he began to understand the context of the 400-year-old piece of parchment that had sat on his shelf for half a decade.
"I studied some of these hidden traditions, which you have to do some digging to find, which is why it wasn't on the surface of things, not even in a monastery," he says.
Alchemy, like much of the Western esoteric tradition, finds roots in what Manly P. Hall called "mystery cults," philosophic organizations where only illuminated initiates could be entrusted with metaphysical secrets. This idea finds parity with the Carthusians, who protected the original formula as well as its 1764 adaptation, now bottled as Green Chartreuse. It was for this production that Father Michael procured botanicals and electuaries from around the world.
"It was part of the legend for a while that the monks would go out and pick the herbs in the Alps. Well, no," Father Michael says. "Some spices and herbs, from the very start, were from the Far East."
Many of these botanicals' history in Europe can be traced back to spice routes established by alchemists in the Middle Ages.
"That's what the Holy Grail is about, and the Philosopher's Stone—transforming the lead of our disparate and dis-ordinate desires and impulses, and all the confusion we have in our heart, through the love of God and the grace of God … into pure gold and love and peace and forgiveness and joy," Father Michael says. "That's what its actually about."
Today, Father Michael not only attends to his regular parish duties, he also specializes in interfaith learning and is a teacher of Zen. Having left the Carthusian order in 1994, he still tries to support Chartreuse and education on the liqueur and its history, as well as contemplate the process he was integral in for five years and its metaphysical parallels.
"A deep and balanced spirituality, of course, would emphasize the incarnational and resurrectional aspects—i.e., that the physical is part of the final synthesis, the New Heavens and the New Earth," Father Michael says. "In other words, the physical is transformed and harmonized, not jettisoned or left behind."