The History of Chartreuse

Learn how, with a recipe historically shrouded in secrecy, this unique herbal liqueur has gathered global intrigue.

| Fall 2019

Photo from Wikimedia Commons/Ralf Roletschek

When you think of green alcohol, absinthe is likely the first product that comes to mind. Given its controversial history, that’s not a surprise. But another green alcohol has been on the market for more than 400 years, steadily rising to fame because of the secrecy of its recipe and its vegetal, spicy flavor: chartreuse. With 130 herbs, spices, barks, and roots in every batch — and a recipe known to only two people at any one time — there’s no other liqueur quite like it.

An Alluring Alcohol

The subtle mystique of Chartreuse is surprisingly widespread. The drink has appeared in history, literature, and film over the centuries. It’s said that Welsh journalist and explorer Sir Henry Morton Stanley carried the liqueur through Africa on his search for Dr. David Livingstone; that French general and eventual president Charles de Gaulle enjoyed Chartreuse-spiked hot chocolate; that actor Bill Murray has appeared at parties and bought shots of Chartreuse for everyone. In The Great Gatsby, Jay and Nick talk over glasses filled with the liqueur. In the novel Sweet Thursday, the characters drink martinis made with Chartreuse. The unique alcohol has even merited mention in films by Alfred Hitchcock and Quentin Tarantino.

Photo from Flickr/Myles Grant

Chartreuse’s trademark vibrant-green hue comes from the chlorophyll in its botanical ingredients. Its natural ingredients are put through multiple macerations before the concoction is aged. And while Green Chartreuse, the original liqueur, has gained much more recognition than its cousin, Yellow Chartreuse is thought to be made with similar herbs in different amounts and perhaps macerated for a different length of time, resulting in a naturally pale-gold coloring. The green-yellow hues of these liqueurs are so unique that the color we call “chartreuse” is actually derived from the drink itself.

Despite the complexity and precision of the Chartreuse recipe, only two people in the world know the 130 herbal ingredients. The distillers are monks of the cloistered Chartreuse Order, or Carthusians, who take a vow of silence and live in solitude and simplicity. A monk’s hermitage is his retreat. The Carthusian monastery is nestled in the Chartreuse Mountains of St. Pierre-de-Chartreuse, France, with a sign posted outside asking for silence. Cars and buses must stop at a certain distance to avoid disturbing the monks’ peace and solitude. And when one film director, Philip Gröning, wanted to make a documentary about the Carthusians and their day-to-day lives, it took 16 years to negotiate an agreement. It should come as no surprise that they carefully keep the formula for Chartreuse to themselves. What is surprising are the lengths to which monks have gone to keep the secret recipe tightly in their grasp.



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