Benedictine and chartreuse

Benedictine and Chartreuse

In Brief

The glories of several pieces of sacred music send Bloom into a brief this-worldly reverie about life in the old Catholic church, starting with art-loving popes and ending with the daily lives of monks: "Those old popes were keen on music, on art and statues and pictures of all kinds. Palestrina for example too. They had a gay old time while it lasted. Healthy too, chanting, regular hours, then brew liqueurs. Benedictine. Green Chartreuse." The two herbal liqueurs he names, which are among the finest in the world, are indeed the work of French monks, though their histories are slightly more complicated than he imagines.

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Bénédictine, a distilled spirit whose formula is a closely guarded trade secret, is reportedly flavored with 27 herbs, spices, fruits, flowers, roots, honeys, and conifer saps. It is supposed to have been invented in the 16th century by Benedictine monks at the Fécamp Abbey in Normandy, but its mass production dates only to 1863, when a businessman named Alexandre Le Grand, helped by a compounding chemist, devised a formula that he said came from the abbey in the days before the Revolution banished monastic orders. The letters "DOM" printed on every label (Deo optimo maximo, "To God, most good, most great") are said to be a Benedictine motto, like the AMDG (Ad majoram Dei gloriam, "To the greater glory of God") of the Jesuits, but this claim may be spurious. The commonly recognized motto of St. Benedict is Ora et labora ("prayer and work"), and putting DOM on liqueur bottles was a marketing decision made by Le Grand.

The monastic provenance of green Chartreuse (there is also a yellow version) is much more definite. Carthusian monks at the Grande Chartreuse monastery in the Chartreuse Mountains of southeastern France began making this distilled spirit in the early 18th century. It is flavored with an even larger assortment of herbs, spices, flowers, and roots—130 of them in all—and as with Bénédictine only two or three people know the formula at any given time. The monks began brewing the liqueur for its supposed medicinal properties, rather than for alcoholic inebriation, but here too there is a secular origin story. In 1605 a marshal of artillery to the French king, François Hannibal d'Estrées, gave the Carthusian order a manuscript containing an alchemical formula for the elixir of life. One of the monks at Chartreuse tinkered with the recipe in 1737, and production began. After the Revolution the formula was smuggled out of France and the liqueur was made in Catalonia for many years, but today two monks oversee production at Grande Chartreuse.

Benedictine and Chartreuse figure only in this one brief passage in Lotus Eaters, but within the Homeric framework of that chapter the two liqueurs carry strong associations: alcoholic delights, alchemical elixirs, religious mysteries, gay old times.

JH 2022
Bottles of Benedictine liqueur. Source: