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?

Twinkle, twinkle, cocktail stars

Stellina is traditionally enjoyed on the rocks, but it blossoms as a cocktail ingredient. Here are two original Stellina recipes from two of Tokyo’s top bartenders.

JF Alliance

Hidetsugu Ueno of Bar High Five is fast becoming the global face of Japanese bartending. A judge for nine international bartending competitions this year alone, he’s in demand for his cocktail skills, English fluency and a crowd-pleasing ice-carving party trick. His recipe begins conventionally, pairing the liqueur with French vermouth and gin, but the Japanese twist is what sets it apart.

15 ml Stellina Verte

15 ml dry gin

15 ml extra dry vermouth

15 ml fresh lemon juice

1 tsp green tea liqueur

A dash of yuzu pepper

Shake and double strain into cocktail glass.

Stellar Lead

Shinobu Ishigaki of Bar Ishinohana makes cocktails like Jenson Button drives cars: with speed, precision and panache. So it was no surprise that the former Japanese cocktail champ took his first sip of Stellina, reached straight for the bottles and created the Stellar Lead in just a couple of minutes. It’s an inspired, deep medley of sweets and sours. Instant classic.

30 ml Stellina Jaune

10 ml brandy

30 ml grapefruit juice

Orange peel

Shake the Stellina, brandy and juice with ice, pour into a cocktail glass and top with a finger of orange peel.

Where to find Stellina

Bar High Five, 4F No. 26 Polestar Bldg., 7-2-14 Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo. (03) 3571-5815; www8.ocn.ne.jp/~highfive

Bar Ishinohana, 3-6-2 Shibuya, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo. (03) 5485-8405; www.ishinohana.com

Yokohama Kimijimaya Tokyo store, 2-2-3 Marunouchi, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo. (03) 6212-6880; www.kimijimaya.co.jp

Stellina: A short history of a ‘little’ success

1829: Gabriel Taborin establishes the Sainte Famille order.

1903: A strict sectarian interpretation of French law forces religious groups into exile or a clandestine way of life. Most of the Sainte Famille brotherhood flee to a house in Piedmont, Italy, where they find stills and other drink-making equipment. Brother Henri-Marie Berger-Billon uses his knowledge of botany to experiment with liqueurs.

1904: The first bottle of Stellina (“little star” in Italian) is sold in Italy.

1908: Stellina is awarded a gold medal at a drink contest in Venice, Italy.

1909: Stellina wins the grand prix at a contest in London and gold at a contest in Rome.

1939: The monks return to France, taking their pot still with them.

1950s: Commercial production of Stellina begins.

2009: After a century-long break from competition, Stellina enters the International Spirits Challenge. The yellow version scoops silver in the liqueur category.

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