If you haven’t noticed America is a little odd. We like doing a lot of things backwards. Like our current administration- or how in most of the world writes the date as day/month/year, which helps explain why May 16, or 16.05, is world Chartreuse Day.
If you’re unfamiliar, Chartreuse is a liqueur made by the Carthusian Monks in the French Alps and is often considered bottled magic by many in bartending community. It’s a thing of myth, medicine, and history. It’s history starts in the year 1605.
The Carthusian Monks are an order of working monks, which means that rather then devoting themselves to missionary work they devote themselves to contemplation, prayer, and solitude and maintain that lifestyle by working. Since the order was founded in 1084 they’ve made many things but the one they have been world famous for making for centuries is Chartreuse.
The production of Chartreuse carries all the mystery you would expect from an organization a thousand years old and devoted to quiet prayer and meditation. The recipe is based on a manuscript thought to be gifted to the monks by Francois Hann
ibal d’ Estrées, a cousin of the king at that time, which supposedly contained the recipe for “the Elixir of Long Life.” It was the high time of alchemy and the monks went to work decoding the manuscript of 130 herb and botanicals, yet the first Élixir Végétal de la Grande-Chartreuse didn’t appear until 1737. This seems like quite a gap but keep in mind the world wasn’t as connected as it is these days. Ingredients listed in the manuscript weren’t all native to the French Alps, and once the spice trade brought many of them into circulation it wasn’t a simple matter of following a tried and tested recipe. It was a lot of “a pinch of this” and a “bag of that” things that required balance.
The first Elixir, at nearly 140 proof, was sold as medicine, and is still available in French drugstores as such, and was sold from the back of mules in very limited supplies to the villages around Grande-Chartreuse. However, despite limited availability it proved so popular that the monks set about to create a more “mild” drinkable version. A liqueur of green color, at a mere 110 proof, began to be sold in 1764 and its legend grew from there. A yellow version was introduced in 1838, a defunct “white Chartreuse” was sold from 1886-1900, the monks were forced to flee post
Revolution France and moved operations to Tarragona for several years before returning to France, and then the V.E.P. (“Viellissement Exceptionnellement Prolongé”) was released in 1963. And this doesn’t account for the varieties available overseas that aren’t available in the United States. Most of which aren’t available because the F.D.A. wants to know what goes into Chartreuse and the monks are understandably closed lipped about a 400 year old recipe. The sales of Chartreuse fund all of the Carthusian Monasteries across the world and the U.S. is the second largest market for Chartreuse in the world. Understandably the company in charge of selling Chartreuse for the monks didn’t want theTTB to pull the product so they have a stalemate. The TTB grandfathered the Yellow, Green, and V.E.P.s into the country with the understanding no other Chartreuse iterations would be imported.
But what makes Chartruese so compelling in the first place? First, is the romance. Who doesn’t love a product made based on an ancient manuscript, containing 130 different botanicals, from a recipe known by only two monks who have taken a vow of silence? It’s the Coca-Cola of the booze world. But, also it’s the complexity of the spirit.
Chartreuse is made from 130 different botanicals. The Green uses a sugar beet base distillate while the Yellow uses a grape- spirit base (the Yellow also lowers the proof to 80, and uses more saffron and distilled honey as a sweetener). These herbs and botanicals grant a natural complexity but because Chartreuse is created by distillation and maceration it is the only spirit in the world to continue to evolve inside the bottle. Those ingredients continue to interact in unknown ways making old bottles truly unique and sought after.
Standard Chartreuse is aged for 3-5 years in the largest liqueur aging cellar in the world (read: ONLY liqueur aging cellar in the world) The V.E.P.s are aged from 11-20 years and while they carry no age statement you can determine a least the date of the bottling by adding 1084 to the first three digits of the numbered code on the back of the bottle.
While the Yellow V.E.P. tends to be the fan favorite (a good friend once described it as “liquid space honey”) I’ve always been partial to the Green, probably because it is 108 proof. My open bottle was released in 2013 and is noticeably richer than the standard Green. Not because there’s a larger oak presence, the barrels are essentially neutral containers at this point, but because the botanicals have had more time to mature. The menthol quality takes a back seat as the warm baking spices ride along the pine and gentian notes to end on a dark, baked fruit note that leaves a sense of weight to the inside of your mouth. Drinking the Green V.E.P. is what I imagine history tastes like: bitter-sweet, earthy, slightly spicy, and heavy with the weight of time.
Chartreuse remains interesting today not just because of it’s history, or because it’s the father of an entire categorization of spirits but because of it’s complexity. And it’s impressive that the spirit can be so well understood and utilized in mixed drinks despite the lack of knowledge of how it’s produced. Sometimes the mystery is the magic and some times that magic creates complexity.
But my absolute favorite thing in the long tale of Chartreuse is that the spirit was so popular and recognizable that the color Chartreuse is actually named after the spirit. That is cultural impact at its finest.