It has a centuries’ old history, a cult following and has given its name to a shade of green and so far no one has succeeded in replicating it. Welcome to the world’s most mysterious liqueur
Chartreuse but not as we know it: a small Chartreuse bottle, or, as it says on the label "Une Tarragone" and on the metal base Une Chartreuse. It was made in Tarragona and, when given to me in 1988 at the distillery in Voiron, it was thought to date from around 1935.
Below is the back of the label (rather than a label on the back of the bottle) bearing the words Etiquette Spéciale France
What’s different about Chartreuse?
Everything really, from its inception to the present day. It was created by Carthusian monks in 1764 from a manuscript for an “elixir of life” given to the monastic order in 1605. It’s still made to the same secret recipe today, by two Brothers from La Grande Chartreuse, the motherhouse of this ascetic, silent order, in the French Alps 17 miles from Grenoble. Only these two monks and the Father Superior know the recipe. Fanciful but true. Another thing that's different is that it continues to evolve and become more complex in the bottle.
What and where?
No fewer than 130 herbs, plants and flowers are delivered, unmarked, to the monastery – 18 tons a year – to be dried, crushed, blended and put into numbered sacks. When required, they’re taken to the distillery nearby where the two Brothers, with two lay helpers, macerate them and distill them. After several years’ ageing in oak casks in the world’s longest liqueur cellar, the monks decide when the liqueur is ready for bottling.
And the taste?
In a word: complex. In a few more words: herbal, floral, spicy, pungent, sweet at first, but drier than most liqueurs, and potent because it’s 55% alcohol. Yellow Chartreuse, Green’s younger sibling (born 1834), is softer, sweeter and less potent at 40%. Green Chartreuse, with its natural green colour, is king.
Neat, ideally chilled to 12–13ºC, or on the rocks, or with a mixer or in a cocktail such as a Chartreuse Martini (with gin and dry vermouth). Or try the skiers’ favourite: Green Chaud, in a mug, one part Green Chartreuse to 3 parts hot chocolate.
Has much changed?
The distilleries by necessity. In 1903 the monks were expelled from France (not for the first time) and went to Spain, where they set up operations in Tarragona and made Chartreuse until 1989. At the same time, from 1921, they also produced it again in France, first in Marseilles and then back at their original Alpine distillery in Fourvoirie, until in 1935 the distillery was destroyed by a landslide. Undaunted, the Carthusians set up a new distillery a few miles away in Voiron (they themselves were not allowed to return to their home nearby, La Grande Chartreuse, until 1940). Production continued here until 2018 when a new distillery was opened in nearby Aiguenoire, leaving the Caves de la Chartreuse in Voiron to open as a visitors centre next year.
Any famous fans?
Indeed there are: Quentin Tarantino, Bruce Springsteen, Frank Zappa, Tom Waits and ZZ Top; and it features in novels by Scott Fitzgerald and Amélie Nothomb.
Photographs by Joanna Simon
This is a longer, updated version of an article which was first published in Waitrose Drinks magazine in November 2017