Before I arrived in Voiron, Chartreuse felt pretty irrelevant to me. Admittedly, I’d only had Chartreuse once or twice before, neither of which times was I particularly moved. In my mind, Chartreuse was nothing more than an obscure cocktail ingredient that mixologists stirred into their boozy concoctions. Even more embarrassing – though, I imagine I’m not alone in having thought this – I actually thought Chartreuse was a category or style of liquor/liqueur up until actually going to Chartreuse (which I also did not know was a place that existed).
I actually thought Campari was a category or style of liquor/liqueur up until a few years ago. Am I crazy ignorant or did they just not teach you this stuff in school?
Cue the egg on my face, please.
As it turns out, Chartreuse, like Campari, is not a category or style of liquor/liqueur – it’s its own specific thing. Chartreuse is its own brand, has its own proprietary recipe(s), is distilled in only one place, etc. Literally – its own thing.
The Story of Chartreuse
The story of Chartreuse is actually the story of the Carthusian Monks. If you’re studied at all in booze, you’ll know that we owe a great deal of our knowledge (and ability to enjoy/taste these things) of the subject to the church and often to dedicated monks. The church and monks preserved for centuries – through plagues and wars and famine and the general unpleasantness that were the middle ages and beyond – knowledge about vine-growing and vinification; beer-brewing and fermentation; and, in our case here, distilling (or more technically speaking macerating) Chartreuse.
The one word that struck me as the most immediately indicative of what the life of a Carthusian Monk is like was “semi-hermitic.” As in, semi-hermit-like. Jury’s still out on whether it’s a real word or not, but it sure does get the point across. The monks live in a monastery up in the Chartreuse mountains, the namesake for the liquor/liqueur they produce and sell, where they’ve all taken a vow of silence. Our guide at the old production facility we visited shared with us that the vow of silence is more like a “tool” than an “obligation.”
Question to self: are the monks allowed to watch movies? Because this sounds suspiciously like how Captain Barbosa in Pirates of the Caribbean talks about The Code.
The Carthusian Monks or the Carthusian Order are also known as the Order of Saint Bruno in honor of Bruno of Cologne who founded the Order in 1084, building his first hermitage in a valley of the Chartreuse mountains. Unsurprisingly, nothing noteworthy happened for a while. At some point in the late 1500s or early 1600s, one of the French Kings desired the wisdom of the monks, and so the obliging Carthusians relocated to Vauvert near Paris, where in 1605 they received the recipe for an “elixir of long life” from François Annibal d'Estrées. The recipe eventually made its way to the principal monastery, Grande Chartreuse, where after what appears to be a fair amount of trial and error, the monks successfully distilled a medicinal elixir of 71% ABV in the mid-1700s that resembled Chartreuse as we know it today. Pretty soon thereafter, in 1764, the monks arrived at what is to-this-day known as Green Chartreuse.
With the discovery of Green Chartreuse began a somewhat tumultuous time for our peaceful, silent, shepherds of the mountain. First, the French Revolution. Excessive taxes, poor harvests, and class divides fueled an era of chaotic change in France. An era that frowned upon the bourgeoisie, aristocracy, monarchy, clergy – basically anyone with outsized wealth/influence. And by frowned upon, I mean chopped the heads off of. The monks – though silent they may be – had a preference to keep their heads firmly attached to the rest of their body and thus fled to neighboring countries, waiting patiently for the dust to settle.
Upon their return in the 19th century, the monks developed a sweeter, yellow version of Chartreuse with a lower alcohol content of 43% ABV (compared to the Green Chartreuse at 55%).1 Yellow Chartreuse gained quickly in popularity and overshadowed the older, less sexy Green Chartreuse throughout the 1800s.
More turbulent times soon again followed for les Pères Chartreux. Church and state were separated in 1905, and the police were sent to expel the monks from the monastery and confiscate the land. The monks chose exile and the bulk of them escaped to Italy. A small contingent of monks, including the one with the secret recipe journeyed to Tarragona, Catalonia in Spain and continued the production of Chartreuse where they added a label to pay homage to the Catalonians’ welcome Liqueur fabriquée à Tarragone par les Pères Chartreux (liquor/liqueur manufactured in Tarragona by the Carthusian Fathers). Again, with their saint-like patience, the Carthusians waited until it was safe for them to return to their mountain abode.
A few decades later, the monks returned to the monastery and began once again producing Chartreuse from their home distillery (though production in Tarragona would continue for another half century until it was shut down in the 1980’s) with neither permission nor rejection from the French government.
In 1935, a landslide destroyed the distillery. Despite the eviction law still being in effect, the French government assigned army engineers to rebuild the distillery – this time in Voiron, near the train station, a natural distribution point for the liquor/liqueur. By the end of the next decade, the monks were back in good standing with the French government.
As recently as two years ago, the Carthusian monks have moved their production to a new distillery in nearby Aiguenoire. The production of Chartreuse involves neutral spirit at 95% ABV, i.e. a liquid bomb so the EU regulators required that the production facility be moved away from the 20,000-person city of Voiron.
Silence is Golden. But (Yellow) Chartreuse is More Golden.
If you’ve never tried Chartreuse before, you really should make an effort to. Try both green and yellow, and try them on several different occasions. Like any delicacy, Chartreuse is an acquired taste. The only way to acquire the taste is to practice, i.e. drink it. I imagine the first time you tasted an oyster – slimy, salty, briny – or caviar – fishy, gelatinous, sea-watery – you probably weren’t a huge fan. Perhaps you’re still not. Then the same advice applies, keep trying them. You don’t have to order a dozen oysters – just grab one from a friend every now and again. Eventually, it’ll likely click. And if it doesn’t? Sucks to be you, I’m sorry – oysters rock.
Both yellow and green Chartreuse are made with the same 130 herbs and spices but, of course, with different proportions, maceration-times, etc. Neither green nor yellow Chartreuse has any artificial coloring of any kind, which is pretty remarkable when you observe the richness and hue of both variations. One of the first questions I had (with about a hundred others queued up right behind it if the answer was ‘yes’) is if the monks distill their own neutral spirit? Nope. That they buy. Makes sense – these men of god don’t produce any alcohol. They just buy it, flavor it, taste it, sell it. That’s not as bad, right?
All the plants, herbs, and spices arrive dried at the monastery, where they are mixed into numbered bags destined for the distillery, unidentifiable to any save for the two monks that know the recipe.
Yes, there are only two men alive that know the recipe for Chartreuse at any given time. And, it’s considered a burden and a sacrifice to be one of those do. You don’t become a monk to make Chartreuse (we were told). You become a monk because you want to be a monk. You make Chartreuse as a necessary sacrifice to the rest of your Order in your pursuit of monkhood (monkship?). The two monks that know the secret recipe and that work in the production of Chartreuse, naturally, sacrifice their vow of silence while they work. Those precious monks take a number of precautions to ensure their survival (and thus the survival of the recipe), though. For example, they will not stay in the same place nor travel in the same car when in transit. There’s no backup plan.
Psych. Of course, there’s a backup plan. The monks wouldn’t risk their livelihood on two old guys not dying. Apparently, there’s a safe where the recipe is written.
Green Chartreuse is pungent. Both because it’s high-proof and because of the overflowing bouquet of aromas in the glass. When you hold it to the light, you’ll observe that the color – especially along the edge – changes to yellow. On the nose are a whirlwind of aromas. Licorice, herbal, minty, spicy. Lots of black licorice and anise; dried Italian herbs; menthol and spearmint; black pepper and cinnamon; lemon rind. On the palate, you can feel the cooling effects of the menthol/mint as well as the burn of the alcohol. Definitely an acquired taste – no doubt about it.
Yellow Chartreuse is more approachable. If you’re going to taste both – you should taste yellow first because it’s lower proof and less aggressive/assertive. It’s not surprising that Yellow Chartreuse enjoyed widespread popularity over its Grinch-colored counterpart in the 1800s. Less licorice more floral and honeyed. Honeysuckle and jasmine along with the herbaceous backbone. On the palate, much less aggressive and quite sweet. Notes of cardamom and saffron. This one when held to the light will change in color to green along the edge.
The color-change is because both Yellow and Green Chartreuse have compounds in them that are both yellow and green. The final maceration is used to give each respective Chartreuse its color but there’s no hiding what’s inside (without using artificial coloring, at least).
Chartreuse is best served chilled, neat after dinner. Perhaps after the meal, prior to dessert and coffee. It’s a wonderful digestif and palate-cleanser.
Is Chartreuse a liquor or a liqueur?
Chartreuse is kind of both. Liquors are typically characterized as being distilled to 70 proof (35% ABV). Though sugar is fermented to produce alcohol, which is then distilled, liquors typically do not have any sugar in them. Flavored liquors often have added sugar as a part of the flavoring process.
All liqueurs are technically liquors, but that’s not particularly expressive. Liqueurs are distilled neutral spirits that are then macerated with various other ingredients, sweetened with sugar or syrup, and cut with water to reduce the proof. Most liqueurs will be in the 40-proof range – though, they can range anywhere from 30 proof to 100+ proof. Colloquially, liqueur implies a lower-proof spirit that’s been sweetened and flavored.
Chartreuse walks the line between liquor and liqueur, and I don’t want to prematurely characterize/define it simply by nomenclature alone, hence the characterization of Chartreuse as a liquor/liqueur.
Chartreuse is the product of a centuries-old recipe of an elixir for long life. The monks who make it and have preserved it – through war, revolution, exile – have instilled in it 130 different ingredients from France and around the world in exact proportions known only to two living men. And, the people that make it never drink it. They can taste it and spit out, but no drinking.
And if that’s not enough. It tastes awesome. Once you get to know it a bit, that is.
When I think about these monks making a spirit they can’t drink, all I can hear is Billy Joel cajoling “I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints. The sinners are much more fun…”
1 Note that the alcohol content of Chartreuse may vary from country to country based on various import/alcohol regulations.