Chartreuse. The Elixir of Longevity with Four Hundred Years of History.

bottle of Chartreuse

During my visit to Lyon last autumn, I couldn’t resist spending a day in the birthplace of my favorite liqueur, exploring the fascinating world of the original Elixir Vegetal de la Grande-Chartreuse, discovering the home of the Carthusian monks who created it, and delving into the captivating history and present-day allure of this enigmatic elixir.

Liqueurs have their origins in ancient elixirs and herbal potions that were used in traditional folk medicine to fortify both the body and the spirit. Chartreuse stands out as one of the rare liqueurs that has a direct connection to medieval elixirs, making it an authentic relic from the Middle Ages.

My first encounter with Chartreuse was driven by its reputed health benefits. While visiting Bordeaux University on a brief trip, I fell victim to a local virus. In an act of kindness, my French colleagues offered me a glass of Chartreuse, explaining that it was the best remedy for early-stage colds. Surprisingly, it proved effective!
While I can’t confirm whether Chartreuse truly extends human life, as no statistics have been collected on that matter, its own longevity is undeniably preserved.

Chartreuse is a herbal liquor meticulously crafted by extracting essences from a remarkable array of one hundred and thirty different herbs and plants. These essences are then infused into wine spirit, distilled, and aged, culminating in the creation of Chartreuse. Remarkably, only two individuals in the entire world are privy to the recipe, which has been safeguarded for over four centuries. For almost three hundred years, Chartreuse has been produced following the exact same formula as it is today.

The history of Chartreuse is as captivating as its taste, filled with intriguing stories and a deep connection to the Carthusian Order. Chartreuse is exclusively produced at the Grande Chartreuse monastery, nestled in the Chartreuse Mountains near Grenoble, serving as the Mother House of the Carthusian Order.

The Carthusians, one of the oldest Catholic orders, offer a compelling narrative even outside the realm of Chartreuse. Established in 1084 by Saint Bruno of Cologne, their founder was a highly educated individual with a gift for teaching. Under his leadership, the University of Reims gained prominence throughout Europe. However, as someone familiar with the challenges of academic life, I can attest that the pursuit of tranquility is not always found in such endeavors. Seeking inner peace, Bruno retreated to the solitude and silence of the Chartreuse Mountains to devote himself to the Lord. From that point on, prayers, silence, and meditation became integral aspects of the Carthusian way of life.

Some more information about the Order with photos can be found in my other post, but the focal point of our story is the Chartreuse liquor, though their destinies remain intertwined and forever connected.

Interestingly, the Carthusians sustain their modest existence solely through self-employment. Bruno established complete self-sufficiency as the guiding principle of the order, and the production of Chartreuse became (and continues to be) their means of supporting the monastery’s livelihood.

In 1605, Francois Hannibal d’Estrées, the Marshal of King Henri IV, bestowed an ancient manuscript containing the recipe for the Elixir of Longevity upon a Chartreuse monastery near Paris. The recipe outlined the preparation of a tonic elixir crafted from a blend of 130 herbs. However, it provided only a list of ingredients and a few preparation guidelines, lacking specific plant parts, proportions, and crucial details. The monks at the Paris monastery, renowned for their expertise in pharmacy, maintained a close relationship with Doctor Amaud de Villeneuve, a renowned scholar of medicinal plants. It was believed that if anyone could decipher the recipe, it would be them. For nearly a century, the monks attempted to unlock the secrets of the manuscript, but they only managed to comprehend a fraction of its contents.

In 1736, during a visit to the Paris monastery, Dom Michel Brunier discovered the manuscript. Realizing that the Parisian monks had been unable to create the elixir for a century, he concluded that their chances of success were slim. A year later, Brunier became the General of the Order and Prior of La Grande Chartreuse, the Carthusian Order’s Mother House. He requested the manuscript be sent to their monastery. It was then that Brother Bruno and Brother Andre embarked on developing a new formula, resulting in a red-hued elixir. Their successor, Brother Jerome Maubec, the Monastery’s Apothecary, possessed greater knowledge and experience than his predecessors. In 1755, he successfully reconstructed the Elixir, creating a detailed recipe. After Brother Maubec’s passing in 1762, Brother Antoine Dupuy refined the recipe, resulting in a light-greenish elixir. By 1764, the development of the Elixir of Longevity was complete, and the recipe was meticulously recorded in a seven-page manuscript. It was deemed essential that the recipe never leave the monastery, remaining solely in their possession. In fact, Carthusians continue to produce this very elixir, known as Elixir Vegetal de la Grande-Chartreuse, to this day. It is a potent concoction, boasting an ABV of 69%, and is presented in wooden packages containing small bottles.

Until the end of the 18th century, the monastery produced limited quantities of the Elixir, distributing it in Grenoble and nearby villages.

The French Revolution had the potential to either spell the end for Chartreuse or transform it into a national treasure. During this tumultuous period, all religious orders were expelled from the country. Fleeing from France, the Carthusians managed to secure both the original manuscript and its sole copy. Although one monk holding the original manuscript was arrested, he entrusted it to his friend, former Carthusian vicar Dom Basile. Dom Basile, in turn, passed the manuscript to Monsieur Liotard, the former pharmacist of Chartreuse. Despite not having a strong inclination towards his own profession, Monsieur Liotard did not attempt to recreate the Elixir himself.

The political climate of the country left Monsieur Liotard doubtful about the Order’s potential return to France. In 1810, Emperor Napoleon mandated that citizens surrender any secret medical manuscripts in their possession, which Monsieur Liotard dutifully complied with. However, the Ministry of the Interior staff, lacking competence, deemed the manuscript as “non-secret” and returned it. The existence of Napoleon’s Empire was not everlasting, and in 1816, the Carthusians regrouped at La Grande Chartreuse. Following Monsieur Liotard’s passing, the manuscript was recovered from his widow and returned to the Order. Thus, Chartreuse remained within the sanctuary of the monastery’s walls.

The pleasurable taste of the Elixir led laypeople to consume it not just for its health benefits but for pure enjoyment. Responding to this demand, the monks developed two additional liqueurs based on the original Elixir in 1764, resulting in Green Chartreuse (Chartreuse Verte) and Yellow Chartreuse (Chartreuse Jaune) in 1840. The fundamental herbal composition remained unchanged, with the alcohol content reduced to 55% ABV for Green Chartreuse and 40% ABV for Yellow Chartreuse, while a touch of sugar was added to enhance the drinking experience. This gave birth to the well-known Green Chartreuse, which I personally used to alleviate my cold symptoms. Each liquor also incorporates distinct herbal additions to customize the taste and color.

Remarkably, Green Chartreuse is the only green liquor whose vibrant hue is derived entirely from natural herbs and devoid of artificial dyes. The same holds true for Yellow Chartreuse.

Additionally, Chartreuse liquor has become synonymous with its official namesake colors, creating a lasting impact on the world of color classification.

Chartreuse: #7FFF00; RGB (127, 255, 0)
Yellow Chartreuse: #DFFF00; RGB (223, 255, 0)

Following the introduction of new Chartreuse variants, the liquor began to captivate the public’s affection, becoming the primary source of income for the monastery since 1840. It found its way to Lyon, Bordeaux, Geneva, Marcel, Nevers, Paris, and Italy through exportation. It was during this time that the Fathers recognized the need to establish a trademark for Chartreuse, as it remained vulnerable to counterfeiting. In 1852, Chartreuse received a distinctive label and a stamped bottle, solidifying its authenticity.

Over the course of two decades, the demand for Chartreuse surged, necessitating the relocation of the distillery from within the monastery. On one hand, transporting large quantities of bottles along the narrow mountain road proved to be inconvenient (though it remains the same, now paved). On the other hand, the spiritual nature of the monastery compelled the decision to preserve it as a sanctuary of silence and prayer rather than transforming it into a bustling distillery. Thus, the distillery was moved to the nearby town of Fourvoirie, while the monastery continued to serve as the hub for herb preparation, storage, and blending.

Despite some mild criticism from the Pope, the Carthusian monks received overall approval for their Chartreuse enterprise. The Order not only sustained itself but also supported the needs of the Church and the local community. Recognizing their contributions, the Pope granted official trademark registration to Chartreuse in 1869.

However, Napoleon’s reign was not the sole challenge to Chartreuse’s existence. In 1903, the French government nationalized the distillery and subsequently sold the Chartreuse trademark to a group of distillers. Lacking access to the authentic recipe, these distillers resorted to producing a subpar spirit under the name Chartreuse. Disillusioned customers soon realized they were being deceived and received a product of utterly inferior quality masquerading as their beloved liquor. Consequently, the company faced financial ruin, ultimately declaring bankruptcy in 1929.

Following the expropriation of the distillery, the resourceful monks took matters into their own hands and constructed a new distillery in Tarragon, Spain, where they continued producing their renowned liquor. However, due to the loss of the Chartreuse label, they had to market it under a different name—Tarragon. In 1921, they further expanded their operations by establishing an additional distillery in Marseille. Hence, from 1903 to 1929, Chartreuse existed under the alternative name of Tarragon.

Following the unfortunate bankruptcy of the previous distillers, devoted friends of the monastery stepped in and repurchased the trademark, restoring it to the Carthusian Order. The monks returned to their original distillery in Fourvoirie, and Chartreuse reclaimed its rightful name.

In 1935, Fourvoirie faced near-total destruction due to natural disasters, prompting the decision to relocate the distillery to Voiron, a small town located twenty-five kilometers away from the monastery. It was in Voiron that the distillery continued its operations until recent times.

The maturation cellars, where the exceptional aging process of Chartreuse takes place, are also located in Voiron. In fact, there is only one cellar, but it stretches an impressive length of 164 meters, making it the longest liquor cellar in the world, at least according to the advertisements of the 1970s. Chartreuse is truly a unique liquor that undergoes a remarkable transformation with time. Following distillation, the liquor is carefully aged in oak barrels for up to eight years. Monks periodically sample the liquor, and once it has reached the desired flavor profile, they proceed to bottle and distribute it.

Speaking of aging, since 1963, two additional variations of Chartreuse have been produced—Green and Yellow V.E.P. Chartreuse (Viellissement Exceptionnellement Prolongé). These are essentially the Green and Yellow Chartreuses, but they undergo a much lengthier aging process in smaller barrels.

In 2018, the distillery underwent another relocation, moving from Voiron to Aiguenoire. The decision was driven by the desire for a more secluded environment as Voiron had become increasingly popular among Chartreuse enthusiasts. The Carthusian monks sought solitude to safeguard the secret of their Elixir in the midst of a growing crowd.

However, the former distillery in Voiron still serves a purpose. Some of the liquor continues to age there, as the enormous old barrels were impractical to transport. Additionally, the Chartreuse Museum was established within the premises, allowing visitors to delve into the rich history and heritage of this extraordinary liqueur.

The museum offers a delightful exhibition featuring old distillery pots and an authentic cellar showcasing the aged Chartreuse. It also provides an abundance of materials about the history of Chartreuse and its captivating advertisement campaigns, which offer valuable insights. Guided tours are available in both French and English, and the guides share a wealth of fascinating information. I thoroughly enjoyed my visit, even though I was already familiar with Chartreuse’s history. Although photography is not permitted, there is plenty to see and experience, culminating in a delightful tasting session.

Additionally, the museum houses a shop where all of their products, including exclusive offerings, can be purchased. There is also a bar featuring an array of Chartreuse-based cocktails for visitors to savor and enjoy.
Every year, La Grande Chartreuse transforms an impressive eighteen tons of herbs and plants into the famous liquor that brings joy to enthusiasts in over a hundred countries worldwide.

In 1984, in addition to Green and Yellow Chartreuses and their V.E.P. variants, the monks developed new formulas and introduced two new liquors: Genepi des Peres and Chartreux Liqueur du 9e Centenaire. The former is a traditional Alpine herb blend, while the latter is a unique fusion of liquors with distinct aging profiles, created to commemorate the Order’s 900th anniversary.

The development of new formulas was a strategic response to the financial crisis triggered by a significant decline in sales in the American market. In the 1970s, Chartreuse-based cocktails, such as the popular Swamp Water made with pineapple juice and Green Chartreuse, enjoyed immense popularity in the US. However, the cocktail trend shifted in the early 1980s, causing Chartreuse to lose its momentum.

Interestingly, the cocktail landscape experienced a complete reversal at the turn of the 21st century, with a renewed appreciation for forgotten classics. The American love for Chartreuse resurfaced, especially following the revival of the Last Word cocktail (which happens to be my personal favorite). The demand for Chartreuse has surged dramatically and continues to grow. However, the Pope once again reminded the Carthusians that their focus should primarily be on prayer rather than liquor production. The monks took this message to heart and announced that they would not increase Chartreuse production despite the demand. They pledged to produce enough to meet their humble needs, leaving the rest as an external concern. As a result, it has become quite challenging to find Chartreuse in the US, requiring dedicated effort rather than a simple store visit. While this is regrettable, I remain hopeful that a resolution will be found.

So, at present time Carthusians produce the following liqueurs.
Elixir Vegetal de la Grande Chartreuse
Chartreuse Verte
Chartreuse Jaune
V.E.P. Chartreuse Verte
V.E.P. Chartreuse Jaune
, created for specific occasion, and produced in limited quantity:
Chartreux Liqueur du 9e Centenaire
Chartreux MOF (Meilleur Ouvriers de France Sommeliers) Liqueur
– created in 2008 with the participation of the best French sommeliers as a modification of Yellow Chartreuse
Elixir Liqueur 1605 – created in 2005 for the 400th anniversary of the hanging over of the Elixir de Longue to the Order. This is the variant of Green Chartreuse fortified with Elixir Vegetal.
“Foudre 147” Liqueur – the liquor that continued its again in the Voiron cellar after the movement of the distillery to Aiguenoire. First released in 2019.
All these liquors are made from the same 130 herbs, only the proportions of some herbs are changed for taste modification, amount of sugar and alcohol, and time of ageing.
And also:
Genepi des Peres

Chartreuse, with the exception of Elixir Vegetal, is best enjoyed neat, particularly when chilled to a temperature of 11-13°C. This temperature range strikes the perfect balance between alcohol, sugar, and the herbal aromas that characterize Chartreuse. However, it’s important not to place the bottle in the freezer, as extremely low temperatures can dull the herbal aroma and even cause crystal formation.

Elixir Vegetal, on the other hand, is too potent to be consumed straight, as the high alcohol content would overpower the other flavor components. It is typically added to drinks or enjoyed alongside something sweet, such as a sugar accompaniment.

The versatility of Chartreuse extends to its use as an additive in various beverages. In Alpine resorts, the French enjoy adding a spoonful of Chartreuse to a cup of hot chocolate, creating a delightful concoction known as Green Chaud. The guide in Chartruse museum told us that the locals in Voiron eagerly anticipate the arrival of winter to indulge in this Chartreuse-infused hot chocolate tradition.

Furthermore, Chartreuse serves as an exceptional ingredient for crafting cocktails, lending its unique flavors and herbal complexity to create captivating libations. Its versatility and ability to enhance a wide range of mixed drinks make it a cherished choice among mixologists and cocktail enthusiasts alike.

The stories about some Chartreuse-based cocktails you can find in my blog:

Last Word
Mujer Verde
Spring Feeling
Amber Room
Angel’s Share
The Exotic Teapot
Swamp Water

Discuss on FB