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The monastic roots of Chartreuse


Gilles Péris y Saborit | CC BY-NC 2.0

J-P Mauro - published on 04/09/18

This popular liqueur has been made by monks since 1737.

Chartreuse has seen a increase in demand over the last few decades, becoming a staple at most cocktail bars. The light green liqueur, made by monks, is especially popular with the “Film Noir” crowd and has appeared in Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes, Hunter S. Thompson’s “Generation of Swine,” and even Quentin Tarantino’s Deathproof, in which it is described as “the only liqueur so good they named a color after it.”

It is very fitting that these works of art center around a certain mystique, since this alcohol is one of the best kept secrets in the world. Today, as tradition dictates, only two monks, vowed to silence, know the correct combination of all 130 plants that go into distilling this delectable drink.

Read more:
Holy Spirits! Cocktails for Catholics by Michael P. Foley

Chartreuse is distilled by silent monks called the Carthusians, enclosed monastics founded by St. Bruno in 1084. They are perhaps better known for a the recent award-winning documentary, Into Great Silence, which highlights their quiet and ascetic life. By the 17th century the Carthusians had grown into a large, well respected religious order. It was in 1605 that the French king Henri IV sent them a recipe for an elixir which, he claimed, would prolong life. The monks were baffled by the staggering 130 different plants it would take to produce, and it was not until 1737 that they decoded the recipe and first distilled Chartreuse.

The original concoction was 69 percent alcohol, but as the monks refined the process a milder liqueur was created, called Green Chartreuse, at 55 percent alcohol. Atlas Obscura describes Green Chartreuse as an herbaceous, sinus-clearing drink that’s “almost mentholated in its immediate heat.”

As we mentioned earlier, since the beginning it has been tradition that the entire distilling process is handled by just two monks. Today, the men responsible this magnificent drink are Dom Benoît and Brother Jean-Jacques. The two monks ready each batch and store them in huge oak casks, where the liquid ages for several years. Once the appropriate amount of time has passed, they taste test for quality control before the batch is sent out for bottling.

The first batch, in 1737, was delivered by a solitary monk with a mule. Now, there is a vast distribution system which sees to it that Chartreuse finds its way onto bar shelves all over the world. Along with Green Chartreuse, the monks also make Yellow Chartreuse, and now they even bottle the original recipe for the elixir that “prolongs life,” under the name Élixir Végétal de la Grande-Chartreuse, which comes in at up to 71 percent alcohol.

If you’ve never tasted the herbal goodness of Chartreuse, it can be enjoyed straight, chilled or at room temperature. It is also goes well in cocktails, so be sure to try the Chartreuse Swizzle, the Dead Rabbit Tipperary, or our personal favorite, the Green Eyes Gin Cocktail.

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