What is Chartreuse?
Green liqueurs seem to have a certain je ne sais quoi that draws people to them. Much like the mysterious Absinthe, Chartreuse is one of those liqueurs. The green is both beautiful and daunting, as we are not usually accustomed to such liquors.
It is often compared to a sour patch kid because it’s very sweet at first and then it ends on a sour note. A sourness you’d enjoy nonetheless. Professionals say it is both spicy and pungent to the nose. If you’ve ever had the liqueur Galliano, the two are similar. One distinct note of Chartreuse is it’s very vegetal flavor. It is one of the few liqueurs that ages well within the bottle.
The word chartreuse is commonly known as either a pale green or yellow liqueur made from brandy and aromatic herbs; or to describe the color of the liqueur itself.
The name originated from La Grande Chartreuse, the Carthusian monastery near Grenoble, France, where the liqueur was first made. Those monks keep the original secret recipe locked up tight so forget learning how to make it...
The longer name is known as Elixir Vegetal de la Grande-Chartreuse. It usually contains 69% alcohol by volume and 138 proof. There’s a few variations of Chartreuse:
Green Chartreuse- 110 proof or 55% ABV. The first one, the green one, the strongest one. All 130 herbs and the liquor are steeped for about 8 hours. It is thanks to the last addition of a maceration of plant, that gives it the bright green color.
Yellow Chartreuse- (80 proof or 40%), the little bro of the Green Chartreuse, is a bit sweeter and milder. This is thanks to the addition of cardamom and other sweet spices.
White Chartreuse- (30%) was produced and sold between 1860 and 1900. Extremely rare and discontinued.
And there is an interesting backstory to this particular gem, so let’s get it started.
A brief history…
In ancient history, around 1605, monks from Vauvert, near Paris, received a gift from a man named Francois Hannibal d’ Estrées, Marshal of King’s Henri IV artillery. The gift was an alchemical manuscript containing a recipe for something Francois called the “elixir of long life.”
At the time, doctors didn’t truly exist, a lot of the healing was left in the hands of monks and apothecaries who knew how to use certain plants and herbs to treat illnesses. The recipe was so complex to everyone except the monks that in turn it became a complete mystery and illusion to others until the beginning of the 18th century. It was 1764 that the monks finally caved and made it a drink.
Under the rule of Louis XVI the last king of France, in 1793 all monks were expelled from France along with all other Religious Orders and with no monks left to make Chartreuse the manufacture of the liqueur ceased. However, monks being ever so careful, took a copy and left it at the monastery but they took the original from them.
On their way out of the country the monk responsible of the recipe was arrested and sent to prison in Bordeaux. By luck, the officials didn’t search him, so he smuggled it to an allie Mr. Dom Basile Nantas, who was absolutely convinced He was not searched and was able to secretly pass the manuscript to one of his friends: Dom Basile Nantas. In fear that the monks would never come back to France and in order to keep the recipe circulating, he sold the recipe to a pharmacy in Grenoble to Monsieur Liotard.
Fast forward to the end of a monarchy in France, Napoleon ordered in 1810 that all "secret" recipes of medicine be sent to the Ministry of Interior to be reviewed and see if they were worthy. Remember by then Chartreuse is still being made, it just wasn’t the original, so it was refused and not considered all too “secret.”
On his deathbed, the pharmacist who had the copy asked his heirs to return it to the monks, who were back in France by 1816. The manuscript was sent and returned as "Refused" as it was not a secret but well known. At the death of the pharmacist, his heirs returned the manuscript to the monks who had been back at the Monastery since 1816. They suffered a bit more abuse from the government who took all their land in 1893, that’s how the recipe made it to Catalonia.
A corporation known as Voiron took over the production and they’ve been reigning the ranks ever since. Eventually, the monks did make it back to have a part in their invention, but they definitely don’t have their own distillery anymore.
Though the recipes for all forms of Chartreuse are considered trade secrets and are only known at any given time by two monks who prepare the herbal mixture, it is said to include 130 herbs, plants, and even flowers, along with some secret ingredients combined with a wine alcohol base. Some recipes call for the use of brandy, and some call for different herbs that change the color from green to yellow.
Today, the liqueurs are still produced in Voiron, and they must still be prepared by two monks at a time. All of the marketing, bottling, packaging, and management of the distillery, along with some tours, are done by the Chartreuse Diffusion; which is a company created around the 70’s.
Chartreuse is commonly mixed into cocktails in order to add to their flavour, and if you’d like to try it, it’s better to go to a bar and order a cocktail containing it, as opposed to drinking it straight. This is because at times it can be strong and too overwhelming, so it’s better to mix it up within different combinations, until you find the right one for you.
If you’re more of a beer fanatic, Chartreuse mule is a good one, since it does contain some ginger beer and it’s pretty simple to make yourself or for a bartender to make.
If drinking it green makes you a bit queasy, you can try an American Pola, which turns the liquid a bit more red, because of its campari component. But this is a very bitter drink usually.
If you’re not really into mixed drinks, you can just try Chartreuse on the rocks! It’s a great way to really get all the flavour from the different herbs and plants.
A Chartreus’ito is a combination of Chartreuse and a mojito, and this allows for the flavours not to be too overwhelming. Especially if it’s your first time trying it out.
The Last Word is commonly known as one of its signature drinks and there are different variations of this, but it’s essentially the official cocktail for the Chartreuse.
Last, but definitely not least, is a European favorite: Green Chaud, which is basically hot chocolate spiked with green Chartreuse.
We hope you enjoyed reading this article and learning more about such a secretive liqueur, as much as we enjoyed exposing it. I don’t know about you, but I’m definitely open to trying a Green Chaud during this upcoming holiday season. It seems like the perfect “undercover” drink for a family function, just don’t let any children near it. Have a lovely week, and an even better Thanksgiving break!
Thanks for reading, au revoir, and as always…