“With a pint of green chartreuse, ain’t nothing seems right, you buy the Sunday paper on a Saturday night.” – Tom Waits… Til the Money Runs Out
Prepare yourself to be amazed and astounded, surprised and stupefied, rattles and rolled and rarified by the story of a liquor so magnificent that there’s only one of them, so unique that it takes over 130 ingredients to make it, so individual that only two little old French monks have the recipe, and they’re not telling anyone.
Generally there are two main types of chartreuse. The original is the green. It remains the most popular and the easiest to find. It dates back to 1737 although the recipe is supposed to all the way back to 1605. As the story goes, a French marshal by the name of Francois Annibal d’Estrees shows up at a monastery with a recipe for an “elixir of long life”. The monks gladly accepted it and began producing the liquid, and they quickly found that most people were enjoying it for reasons other than the one intended. So they took it, refined it, and released it as chartreuse, starting in 1737.
In 1838 the same monks developed yellow chartreuse, a sweeter version of the drink that gains its colour from the addition of saffron.
“Chartreuse – the only liquor so good they named a colour after it.” – Warren (played by Quentin Tarantino) in Death Proof
Most people, I would think, would presume that chartreuse (the liquor) is named after chartreuse (the colour), given that it’s a beautiful green colour. Most people would be wrong, and I say that as a proud card-carrying member of most people, because I certainly believed that. But it’s the opposite, the colour was named after the liquor, the rich green label not coming into common use until some time after 1884.
After over one hundred and fifty years of producing what was a very popular liquor, in 1903 the monastery was shut down as part of the French Revolution’s crackdown on Religious Orders. They were expelled from the country and headed off to Spain to continue to produce their unique brand of emerald francais hooch. They continued to produce it even while a competing company – the Compagne Fermiere de la Grance Chartreuse – opened back in France and began producing their own version, a version without the benefit of the actual recipe, which the monks had taken with them to Spain. That company didn’t last too long as their version didn’t catch on with the French public, and facing bankruptcy in 1927, all of the shares of the company were bought up the citizens of the town and then were gifted back to the monks, thereby closing the company and opening the way (along with the end of the French Revolution) for the monks to move their entire operation back to France and once again begin producing chartreuse (the drink had temporarily been produced under the name Une Tarragone, after the Taragonia area of Catalonia that the monks had temporarily been staying in).
While green and yellow are by far the most well-known varieties of chartreuse there are others. Chartreuse VEP, which stands for Vieillissement Exceptionnellement Prolongé, is the same recipe as the original green and yellow, but it’s aged in oak casks for a longer period of time. There’s also Élixir Végétal de la Grande-Chartreuse, only available in the green, and is a much more potent version, between 69 and 71% alcohol, and comes in a beautiful wood-topped bottle. There was also a white chartreuse which was only produced between 1860 and 1900. It’s on my wishlist.
So that’s it for chartreuse. Now you know the history, have a little more respect next time you throw back a bijou or a handsome jack, and enjoy.
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