The Mysterious History of Chartreuse
Updated: Mar 29
The holy grail of bartenders cabinets everywhere the infamous order of the Carthusian monks who take a vow of silence while producing a liqueur that many of us reach for when we need a little 'herbal' quality in a drink. The history of this crazy concoction goes way back to the point where it ws once considered the "elixir of long life". LETS DIVE IN! François Annibal d’Estrées, a 33 year old artillery marshal, was an emerging figure in the French army & devotee to King Henry IV. For reasons unknown, François is said to have presented the Carthusian order of monks in Vauvert (near Paris) with a manuscript in which contained the recipe for an, elixir of long life. The manuscript & recipe eventually made its way to the Grande Chartreuse monastery in Voiron, near Grenoble, where it was recreated for medicinal purposes. The recipe called for over 130 exotic ingredients & after being distilled with a grape base, was bottled & distributed under the name“Elixir Végétal de la Grande Chartreuse".
As a religious order of Carthusians (aka The Order of St Bruno), Chartreusian monks followed a life of quiet contemplation, scholarship and prayer standing true to their idiom, stat crux dum volvitur orbis, Latin for “The cross is steady while the world is turning”. The cross, referring to that of Christ, is well represented in their order’s relief while also visual on all bottles of Chartreuse. Staying true to their dedication to study along with the relaxed speed at which they conducted their lives, the recipe was finally perfected by Brother Gerome Maubec over 100 years later in 1737. The elixir was now in distribution & its popularity swiftly grew. In 1764 the monks expanded the distillery to meet demand & created a refined version which we know today as the heady 55% ABV – Green Chartreuse.
Production of the spirit however met with disaster when in 1789 – as with Benedictine – the order was hit by the effects of the French Revolution & expelled from their monastery, which halted production for near half a century. The monks were not able to return to the monastery until 1838 when production recommenced. In celebration of this return, they produced a more sweeter, mellow version of their elixir which included the addition of saffron & is still known today as Yellow Chartreuse.
Difficult times were not behind them unfortunately when in 1903 they were on the wrong side of the French government who decided to nationalise the Chartreuse distillery and expel the monks. Taking their beloved manuscript and centuries of practice with them, they left France for the Tarragona region of Spain to start again where they produced a limited supply of spirits under the name, Liqueur fabriquée à Tarragone par les Pères Chartreux (“Liquor manufactured in Tarragona by the Carthusian fathers”).
The French government, seeing an opportunity, sold the Monks initial holdings in Voiron to a private corporation who attempted to turn a profit from the monk’s initial success by producing their own version of Chartreuse. Not surprisingly, this new corporation could not imitate a recipe refined through centuries of dedication and practice and when near bankruptcy in 1927, sold the company’s shares to an enterprising group of local Voiron entrepreneurs. These new owners, under no illusion as to the reason for the popularity of Chartreuse, graciously invited the monks back from Spain to continue in their worship on the grounds where St Bruno and his six followers initially established the order. The monks accepted. Unfortunately, lady luck was yet to play one more bad hand and in 1935 a mudslide almost completely destroyed the distillery. In difference of the way in which they had been treated by previous authorities, the new French government conscripted army engineers to help salvage and rebuild a new distillery for the order which is still operational to this day. Celebrate with the most famous Chartreuse cocktail:
The Last Word
25ml Chartreuse Green 25ml Maraschino 25ml London Dry Gin 25ml Lime Juice Shake & Double Strain into a coupe