Nothing plays up a good story and gets people intrigued like a “secret” recipe handed down for centuries by monks living in the mountains. In the foothills of the Alps in Eastern France, Carthusian Monks have been making Chartreuse for hundreds of years. In long white hooded robes, two brothers carry out the mysterious duties of making and distilling the drink for the world…
Chartreuse: A Brief History
In 1605, a couple of monks were hanging out in their monastery on the outskirts of Paris. A well known military general came to visit the monastery, and gave the brothers a gift: a supposedly ancient recipe, an “elixir of life” detailing an incredibly complex list of herbs and flowers mixed with alcohol.
Of course, this wasn’t entirely strange: in these early days of distillation, what came out was more often than not used as a medicine and/or a perfume, and not to catch a little buzz.
The monks were thankful, but a bit confused, as this was a very complicated and confusing recipe. With over 130 herbs and spices (take that, Jagermeister) listed, they knew little of the process to make it, and even of the ingredients themselves.
The recipe kicked around for about 100 years, no one really knowing what to do with it, until it was sent to Grenoble in the French Alps. An intense study and research was done on the manuscript, and finally it was made by the monks at this mountain monastery.
At this time, the recipe was for a very strong 70% alcohol, used only in small drops as just a medicine. Soon after production started, bottles were sold all over nearby villages. It became very popular, and so the monks adapted the recipe to a lighter and mildly sweet version, Green Chartreuse clocking in at 55%. This very recipe is the one that still stands today.
But, it wasn’t all moonlight and canoes for the hooded brothers: this was the time of the French Revolution, people were driven out of France, religion was seen as a threat to the state, wars were going on, and one of the monks was sent to prison in Bordeaux.
Years of secrecy and passing on of the recipe to friends came about, hoping to get it back to its home in the Alps, when it was sold to a pharmacist back in Grenoble. It doesn’t seem like this man really tried to make Chartreuse again, but after dying, his family sent the secret recipe back to the monastery.
Today, Chartreuse is made the exact same way it was handed down hundreds of years ago. The original elixir, sold in small 50ml bottles is still made, along with the newer Green Chartreuse, an even lighter and sweeter Yellow Chartreuse, along with a handful of one offs, aged versions, and other herbal liqueurs.
What’s Chartreuse Made From?
Made from a base of grapes, the base wine is made and then distilled. After a few turns in the pot stills, the base alcohol is steeped and macerated in the 130+ herbs, flowers, and spice mix. For something like Gin, this would create a lesser quality drink. In Chartreuse, the tea infusion like process is necessary for the intense flavour and also its trademark colour.
All versions of Chartreuse are all naturally coloured and not stabilized, getting their unique hue only from the herbs and flowers. From here, the final product is aged in large oak casks for up to 5 years, mellowing all flavours and picking up on some of the savoury spice from the wood.
How Many Chartreuse Are There?
The standard. 130 herbs and spices, 55% alcohol and very pungent.
Same recipe, just distilled to a lower strength of 40% and sweetened more.
Green Chartreuse that has been aged extensively, picking up some more savoury spice notes from more time in barrel.
The original. The tiny 50ml bottle of 70% alcohol that was the “elixir of life”.
Liqueur du 9 Centenaire
Created to celebrate the 900th anniversary of the Grenoble monastery. Green Chartreuse but a bit sweeter.
Created to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the original recipe or manuscript given to the monks.
Genepi des Peres Chartreux
Genepi is the term for home made alcohol, made all over the Alps. Families will pick wild flowers and herbs, and then soak alcohol in it, extracting out all the flavour. Similar to Chartreuse, just 40% alcohol and dry.
While modern bartenders have caught on to the wild story and flavours of Chartreuse, it is nice to first try it out neat. An after dinner sipper, like Jagermeister, will let the herbs and bitter flavours come out and help with digestion. Even a splash in some hot chocolate will be nice. But, there is a reason it’s so popular in cocktails!