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Friday, Oct. 23, 2009
This obscure liqueur may save your soul
Made by monks and distilled to a secret recipe, Stellina has quite a story to tell
This isn't a story about Chartreuse, but let's begin there.
In Voiron, near Grenoble in southeast France, Carthusian monks distill a liqueur from 130 medicinal herbs, roots and leaves. The recipe is a tightly guarded secret, known only to three holy brothers. It was conceived as an elixir of life, but so fine was the flavor that French toffs began drinking it with ice as a fancy digestif.
Chartreuse is a kaleidoscopic drink, sweet yet fiery, floral, minty and distinctly aniseedy; it is, said the stuttering Anthony Blanche in Evelyn Waugh's "Brideshead Revisited," like swallowing a sp-spectrum.
A green 110-proof Chartreuse and a yellow 80-proof version now furnish every half-decent bar in the world.
But this isn't a story about Chartreuse; it's a story about Stellina, an herbal liqueur distilled to a secret recipe by the freres de la Sainte Famille in Belley, France, 59 km north of the Chartreuse distillery. Stellina also comes in potent green or mellow yellow and tastes similar to Chartreuse, but there are two notable differences:
1. Chartreuse is single-distilled, Stellina double-distilled, making the latter a little smoother and softer.
2. Chartreuse is a global success and bar staple, Stellina isn't.
Call it the Betamax of booze, the Al Gore of liqueurs, the Beyonce's "Single Ladies" music video of French herbal digestifs: Stellina is the superior runner-up. It sells in France, Italy and Spain, where the Sainte Famille brotherhood has a presence, but is little known elsewhere.
"The Carthusian monks represent a congregation much larger than ours; there are only 300 of us in the world," says Brother Teodoro, the only man who knows the Stellina recipe. (The Carthusians probably signed a better distribution deal, too.)
Teodoro joined the Famille monastery in 1965 at the age of 20. Though his early years were devoted to study, from time to time he would be called to help with the production of Stellina.
"When the brothers needed a hand, they would put a handkerchief on a stick at the bottom of the garden," he says. "We would see the signal from our classroom and tell our professor. He was never pleased to stop the class, but we were always keen to go. Sometimes we'd unload a truck, sometimes we'd clean the bottles or even fill them. Filling the bottles was of course strictly supervised, but whenever the supervisor disappeared, instead of filling the bottle, we would put our mouths under the tap. We were young."
Teodoro grew up and was entrusted with the hallowed recipe. He divulges the formula to nobody, though his brethren know where to find a copy should anything happen to him.
The secrecy is vital, he says, to protect the monastery's key asset. "We receive a percentage of the sales and use it to help Third World countries. The money doesn't pay for beautiful cars or houses, it finances our missions in Burkina Faso, the Ivory Coast and Benin, in India and the Philippines, and in Colombia, Brazil and Ecuador."
Here's another key difference between the taste-alike liqueurs. Carthusian monks pursue eremitic lives, funded by Chartreuse sales. The Saint Famille brothers, by contrast, are educators and pour their profits into schools and other community projects.
"We build centers to teach agricultural techniques," says Teodoro. "We also work on social advancement activities such as village management, seed banks and the distribution of drugs. Our congregation has manufactured and installed more than 5,000 pumps bringing fresh water to villages in Africa."
Teodoro believes there is more than a philanthropic merit to drinking Stellina. Religion, he says, encompasses physical as well as spiritual concerns, and monasteries learned to produce drinks to attend to monks' nutritional needs. Distilling helps preserve the powers of the curative herbs and roots. So it's good for you.
The distiller also sees a spiritual link to his drink. "To speak of alcohol is to speak of spirituous things, and you can see that from the root 'spirit' there is also 'spiritual,' " he says. "You see, if you take alcohol, it puts you in another state that makes you feel differently. There is a nudge in the right direction."
From next month, Japan can nudge itself in the right direction with the launch here of Stellina Jaune and Verte.
The Carthusian giant has a few decades' head start and is known to every bartender worth his salt and lime, but the young upstart tastes better, is more charitable and has a distiller that talks of a spiritual connection. And didn't the little guy slay the giant in Christian legend?