The Persnickety Green Chartreuse

When I’m called upon to explain Green Chartreuse at any length, I tell the story of how only two Carthusian monks are allowed to know the recipe at any time, and how they’re never allowed to be in the same place at the same time.

I talk about how in the old days, only one monk was allowed to know the recipe, but an 18th-century avalanche overtook the Grande Chartreuse monastery and killed him, so the monastery established a more redundant system moving forward. I say how that monk had sworn never to write the recipe down, lest it fall into the hands of counterfeiters. But when picking through the rubble of the monastery, the monks found that he had broken his vow, and forgave him his indiscretion because the recipe for Green Chartreuse would have been lost forever without it.

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I tell this story because it was told to me by another enterprising barman endowed with the gift of gab. I can’t speak to his particular relationship with the truth, but I always suspected that the story might be apocryphal. There is a record of an avalanche in the Chartreuse Mountains in Southeastern France, which destroyed the monastery, but it occurred in the 12th century, not the 18th—almost 500 years before 1605, which is said to be the year that the monks first discovered the alchemical recipe for an “elixir of long life.”

And I’m confident that only two monks are allowed to know the recipe at any given time, but it surely must take more than one person to crank out the thousands of bottles of the stuff that ship to more than 100 countries every year, right? Surely they must at least sometimes occupy the same space. They have only one distillery, after all, even though that distillery has moved a few times in the past 400 years.

Not that any of these inconsistencies have stopped me from spinning the yarn, of course—we bartenders have a saying:

“Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.”

Green Chartreuse’s real story needs little embellishment, though. The liquor starts out effectively as vodka (made by two laymen who assist the two monks); then it undergoes an eight-hour maceration of 130 different herbs, botanicals, and flowers. That macerated spirit is then distilled again, while being monitored remotely by the two monks from the confines of the monastery, 15 miles from the distillery. That distillate is then macerated once more, with whichever secret ingredients give Chartreuse its distinctive color (the liquor is named after the mountains, but the color is named after the liquor). The liquor is then poured into oak casks and aged for an indeterminate number of years in the monastery’s enormous cellar in Voiron, France.

The monks have been making Green Chartreuse according to the same recipe and the same methods since 1764, when they adapted the original 1605 recipe to be more beverage than medicine. That method survived the French Revolution in 1789, when almost all religious orders were expelled from France. It survived Napoleon’s demand that the recipes for all secret medicines be submitted to his Ministère de l’Intérieur. It survived the French nationalization of the monasteries in 1903 due to the Third Republic’s dissensions with the Catholic Church. And it survived a devastating 1935 landslide, which almost completely destroyed the distillery.

Green Chartreuse, like the clerics who produce it, is a survivor.

Actually, it’s more than that. Green Chartreuse is one of the only liquors in the world that continues to develop and age in the bottle. The sale of vintage Chartreuse, or even of entire flights of Chartreuse from different eras, has become very trendy in the past decade.

The notion that a bottle of Green Chartreuse changes just by sitting there long enough reminds me of the stories, apocryphal or not, which so often accompany the stuff. Good stories come with age, too.