With a recipe first discovered by monks over 400 years ago, Chartreuse has evolved from being an elixir that promised extended life to a world famous liqueur enjoyed by millions every year.
The manuscript that would go on to be used to create the liqueur was first presented to The Order of Chartreuse in 1605 by Francois Hannibal d'Estrees. An Elixir of Long Life, as the manuscript was known, lay unused for over a century - the complexity of the ingredients and method being beyond the monks' ability.
The Grand Chartreuse has its history dating back almost a millennium, located in a valley of the Chartreuse Mountains north of Paris, France. Along with the production of the Chartreuse liqueurs, the monastery was brought to fame after Matthew Arnold wrote some of his best poetry while staying there, namely Stanzas from the Grand Chartreuse.
In 1737 the mystery had been solved by the monastery's leadership, and the first production of Chartreuse began. Initially a thick medicine, its distribution was limited, the monks only seeking their close neighbors on mule back. The elixir quickly became popular, no doubt due to its high alcohol content - 142 proof (or 71% ABV).
While the exact combination of spices and ingredients remains a closely guarded secret known by only 3 monks, it is known that the base spirit is grape brandy which is combined with other 130 herbs to create Chartreuse's unique flavor.
After almost 30 years in production, the monks expanded the product line with the introduction in 1764 of Green Chartreuse. Designed to appeal to users that had been drinking the elixir for pleasure, Green Chartreuse featured a lower alcohol content (55% ABV, 110 proof) while keeping the characteristic taste.
Green Chartreuse's release also coincided with the monks' acceptance to expand the distribution of the drink, and soon word spread throughout France and the rest of Europe, resulting in vastly expanded sales.
This success was delayed however by the rise of the French Revolution, with the monastery being abandoned by all but one monk, who was trusted with a copy of the manuscript. Unfortunately, the monk felt that in the chaos of revolution the monks would never return, and sold the recipe to a Monsieur Liotard, a pharmacist.
Despite his qualifications, Liotard was unable to recreate the recipe, and the production of Chartreuse ceased until the monks finally returned in 1816.
The monks further refined on their product range with the development of Yellow Chartreuse, a mellow blend of Green Chartreuse with the benefit of saffron which clocks in at 40% ABV, 80 proof. Success was immediate for Yellow Chartreuse, and soon joined Green Chartreuse spreading throughout Europe.
Politics would once again affect the success of Chartreuse in 1903 when the government nationalized the monastery, and exiled all of the monks to Spain. However, the monks smuggled out the only copies of the manuscript, and left the government with no clue of the true ingredients to the famous Chartreuse. Undeterred, the nationalized distillery started to produce a liqueur under the Chartreuse name - but sharing no similarity to the original product. Unsurprisingly, the distiller was bankrupt by 1929.
The monks however successfully recreated their operations in Spain, and in 1929, with the collapse of the nationalized distillery, regained control of their monastery and returned to their homeland. Unfortunately disaster struck in November 1935 when a landslide destroyed the distillery. Operations where transferred to the nearby town of Voiron, where the monks had a small outpost.
Despite this set back after their return to France, the monks continued their meditation and also expanded the Chartreuse line of products. In 1963 the line was extended to include VEP (Viellissement Exceptionnellement Prolongé) Chartreuse, available in Green and Yellow. These very limited releases are specially selected by the master distiller, and is subjected to extended aging, to create the finest liqueur drinking experience possible.
Today, the monastery continues to be financially supported via the monks' distilling operations, which have expanded to include Vertical Vodka and other specialty liqueurs. Chartreuse continues to be the monastery's largest product and every year is enjoyed by millions of people worldwide.
- Elixir Végétal de la Grande-Chartreuse
- Green Chartreuse
- Yellow Chartreuse
- VEP Green Chartreuse
- VEP Yellow Chartreuse
- 9th Centenary Liqueur
- Génépi des Pères Chartreux
- Walnut Liqueurs des Pères Chartreux
- Fruit Liqueurs des Pères Chartreux
- Vertical Vodka