By Joey Goar
“Chartreuse, the only liqueur so good they named a color after it.” – Warren, Death Proof
Long before Chartreuse was a color, it was a spirit. In the most basic form, it dates back to the 16th century, long before advancements in technology that led to enough idle time for human beings to name each hue of every color imaginable. The reference to a color first appeared in print in 1884, so clearly the liqueur came first.
Just in case one is not familiar with the concept, alcohol was once a much more integral part of everyday life than those of this generation are used to. Today, a drink is reserved to cure the woes of the week, but there was a point in time where people relied on alcohol in one of its many forms for survival.
Some of the most revered varieties were produced by different sects of Catholic monks. That’s right, the holy rollers made (and still make) some of the best hooch around!
In the case of Chartreuse, the Carthusian monks are mostly responsible. In 1605, the monks received a gift from Francois Hannibal d’ Estrèes, Marshal of King’s Henri IV artillery. The present was an already ancient manuscript detailing the concoction of a ‘tonic’ using 130 different herbs. At that point in time the monks at Vauvert, a small suburb of Paris, understood very little of the document. Knowledge relating to the use of plants and herbs to treat illness was rare among monks and even more so in alchemists of the early 17th century.
In the beginning of the 18th century, the manuscript was sent to the Mother House of the Order, La Grande Chartreuse. There, in the mountains of Grenoble, an extensive and exhaustive study that took near three decades took place to unravel the manuscripts secrets. (It was a common practice to only impart ingredients and extremely basic procedure into documents so that only those with equivalent or greater knowledge could understand one’s work.)
Frère Jerome Maubec, the Monastery’s Apothecary finally unraveled the mystery in 1737 and drew up a working formula for the ‘Elixir Vegetal de la Grande-Chartreuse’, which translates into ‘elixir of long life.’ This 69% ABV concoction was meant to be taken in small doses to ease one’s woes such as headaches, stomach pain, back pain and so on.
This Elixir is very vegetal and has notes of anise, clove, gentian, wormwood and chamomile. The Monks are so secretive that no one actually knows what the herbs are. Only a few select of these ever silent Monks are ever allowed to be included in the production process. It is kept so secret that they do not even speak or deal with the public directly. The only true insight into the silent lives led by these Holy men is a 2005 documentary, ‘Into Great Silence’ which details their everyday lives. Filmmaker Philip Gröning was actually allowed to live with the secretive monks for six months in between 2002 and 2003 after waiting sixteen years for a response to his proposal to make the documentary.
The Elixir of Long Life was so tasty that it was more popular as a beverage than as medicine. So much so that in 1764 the Monks adapted the original elixir to a milder 55% ABV version know as Chartreuse. You can’t exactly have townspeople downing something near 140 proof on a regular basis. I am sure that a perpetually drunk town was not only perpetually poor, but they must have had some killer hangovers. The success of the new formula was instantaneous and what was once only available near the monastery became well known and widely available.
Many other interesting things happened to the monks during the subsequent years. They were expelled from their home, some were arrested and they even had their secret manuscript confiscated by Emperor Napoleon himself, but all of that is another story for another time. Chartreuse always has, and always will be a liqueur first and a color second to me.