The Chartreuse logo, featuring the orb and cross
Chartreuse is probably the most famous and prized of all liqueurs. It is made with 130 different plants from a secret recipe known only to a handful of people.
Chartreuse takes its name from the Order of the Carthusians (“l’Ordre des chartreux” in French), which was established in the valley of Chartreuse by Bruno of Cologne and six companions in 1084. It was not until 1257, however, in Vauvert, another monastery founded by the Carhusians not far from Paris - now the Jardins du Luxembourg - that François-Annibal, duc d’Estrées, at the invitation of Saint Louis, first brought the Order a mysterious document containing a list of plants for creating an “elixir of long life”. The manuscript was transferred to Grande Chartreuse in 1737 and in 1764 the definitive formula for Chartreuse liqueur was decreed.
(photo credit © Chartreuse Diffusion)
The Carthusian monks were chased out from Grande Chartreuse and Vauvert for the first time during the French Revolution, in 1792, and it would not be until 1816 that King Louis XVIII returned the monastery to the Carthusians. Thankfully, the manuscript survived this difficult period and was returned to its owners in 1835. The Carthusians began developing new liqueurs, with their research leading to the creation of Green Chartreuse in 1840, followed by Yellow Chartreuse the following year. Chartreuse quickly became very popular, thanks in particular to the armies stationed in the mountain range, who promoted the liqueur all over France. It became the monastery's primary source of income, granting the monks their independence and helping contribute to their good works. The trademark was registered in 1852 by Dom Louis Garnier, whose signature is still found on every bottle today.
In 1864, the distillery was moved to Fourvoirie to increase both productivity and safety, as fires were common at the time. In 1903, at the height of the Third Republic’s period of anti-clericalism, the monks were exiled from their monastery by the army under the Law of 1 July 1901, which was aimed at religious congregations and forced them to ask the State’s permission to exist - permission which was almost never granted. They fled to Tarragona, Spain, where production started up again the following year. The State transferred the trademark to Cusenier, a liqueur producer, but the recipe remained with the Carthusians and Cusenier was unable to produce a spirit as good as the original.
The expulsion of the Carthusians monks on 29 April 1903
(photo credit © Chartreuse Diffusion)
The Carthusians eventually recovered the trademark in 1929, but the Fourvoirie distillery was destroyed by a landslide in 1935. A new distillery was set up the following year in Voiron, as the Civil War raged in Spain. Things would not return to normal until 1945. The 30-year post-war boom was a prosperous time for Chartreuse, and both the bottle and the brand image were updated, with major advertising campaigns bearing their fruits, in the US especially. After a more difficult end to the century, with Chartreuse and older liqueurs in general seeming to fall out of fashion, the “queen of liqueurs” has experienced a return to grace with new products, cocktails and the rediscovery of old editions, such as those produced in Tarragona pre-1989, which have now become highly collectable items. In a sign of the times, Chartreuse was given a new distillery in 2018 in Aiguenoire, in the heart of the Chartreuse mountains.
Many special editions of Chartreuse have been produced, such as those commemorating or celebrating the Carthusians’ return to their monastery, the Liberation, the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, and the Winter Olympic Games. Many have also long been lost, such as White Chartreuse (1860-1900). Other interesting bottles include Santa Tecla, which is sold every year in Tarragona to celebrate Saint Thecla’s day, and the outstanding Cuvée des Fous de Chartreuse. In reality, there are simply too many to name.
The method for dating bottles of Chartreuse is also almost too difficult to describe. Bottles have changed over the years and enthusiasts can turn to various details, labels and capsules to identify a period of time or year with some accuracy. Those interested in learning more should explore the references given at the end of this article. Old bottlings and special editions are extremely popular among collectors and enthusiasts. La Tarragone du Siècle, for example, is a blend of several vintages, ranging from 1906 to 1980, and was released in 2007 in a limited edition of 512 bottles.
Elixir Végétal de la Grande Chartreuse: Produced from a manuscript given to the Carthusians by the Duke of Estrées in 1605, the elixir’s definitive recipe was only decreed in 1764, after more than a century and a half of research, and notably thanks to the work of Brother Jérôme Maubec.
Green Chartreuse: Nicknamed the “Liqueur de Santé”, Green Chartreuse was created in 1840 and is bottled at 55%. Its colour led to it being officially named Green Chartreuse by Father Garnier, who was the agent responsible for liqueurs at the time.
Yellow Chartreuse: Yellow Chartreuse was also created in 1840, by Brother Colomban and Brother Bruno Jacquet, who provided the finishing touch. It is sweeter than Green Chartreuse and bottled at only 43% (or 40% depending on the period) but uses the same plants and is also named after its colour. Chartreuse made from a combination of Green and Yellow Chartreuse is known as Chartreuse Episcopale.
V.E.P (Vieillissement Exceptionnellement Prolongé): The V.E.P.s were created in 1963 and are produced in the same way as Yellow and Green Chartreuse but aged for extended periods in oak half-hogsheads, which are smaller than the barrels other versions are aged in, giving them additional complexity. V.E.P. bottles use the same shape as that of the first known bottle of Chartreuse, dating back to 1840. Green Chartreuse is bottled at 54% and Yellow at 42%. Vintages and bottling years have varied over the years; today it is the year of bottling that is stated on the label.
“Une Chartreuse”: A special cuvée aged for several decades in half-hogsheads was created in 2015. Baptized simply “Une Chartreuse”, its name recalls the words “Une Tarragone” used by the monks when they lost possession of the brand. Every year, their successors collect a small quantity of Chartreuse from the oldest barrels at the house, which they then top up with the oldest liqueurs available, a little like in a solera system. Only 120 bottles each of Green and Yellow Chartreuse are produced every year.