Chartreuse is one of those drams in life that will always leave me in good memories and with a smile. The first time I had a sip of Chartreuse was in 2015 with a local artist named Cessna Decosimo. He told me that Chartreuse was the “elixir of life” and that this drink is what gave him youthful energy. I took a sip of his drink and it changed me forever.
The Desert of Chartreuse
The Carthusian Order was founded in 1084 by a man named Bruno. Bruno was born in Cologne, Germany and later became revered as a philosopher and theologist. He would go on to become the dean of the University of Reims and led the school for nearly two decades.
In 1075, Bruno was appointed Chancellor of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Reims. After facing tyranny and violence by the Archbishop Manasses de Gourney, Bruno was on the brink of becoming a Bishop himself. Instead, Bruno followed a vow he made to renounce secular vows and left Reims. After a short stay Séche-Fontaine with his companions, they later left to see Hugh of Châteauneuf, Bishop of Grenoble. According to legend, the bishop had dreamt of these men following their journey to an uninhabited area under seven hanging stars known as The Desert of Chartreuse.
Bruno would live there shortly with his companions, following the vocation that prayer, silence, and meditation were their life. In 1090, Bruno was called to Rome by Pope Urban II, a former student of Bruno’s, to help. The Pope allowed Bruno to build a monastery in nearby Calabria to live his life in solitude. Bruno died there in 1101. Due to the Chartreuse belief of humility, Bruno was never formally canonized, but in 1623, Pope Gregory XV included him in the General Roman Calendar for celebration on October 6th.
The Elixir of Life
In 1605, a manuscript with the formula of an elixir of life was given to the monks at a Chartreuse Monastery in Vauvert, Paris. The manuscript was a gift from Marshal Francois Hannibal d’ Estrées of King Henry IV’s artillery. The origin of the manuscript is said to come from a 16th century alchemist, but the exact origin is still unknown, and at that time was already considered to be ancient.
The formula consisted of 130 different herbs, plants, flowers, and spices, and at the time of the manuscripts arrival, few monks knew the properties and lacked the understanding of how to produce this complex recipe.
It wasn’t until the 18th century when the manuscript was sent to the Mother House of the Order, La Grand Chartreuse, where an intense study of the manuscript went undergo. The Monastery’s apothecary, Frére Jerome Maubec, finally solved this century old riddle and was able to produce a formula for the production of the Elixir in 1737. Due to the complex methods of this elixir, distribution and sales was limited, and was only sold via a Chartreuse Monk on a mule.
This same elixir is still made today called Elixir Vegetal de la Grande-Chartreuse. It is 138 proof and only made by Carthusian Monks. This elixir was highly loved, and so people began sipping on this elixir as a beverage and not for its intended medicinal purpose. Recognizing this, the monks adapted, and produced a milder lower proof version of this elixir in 1764. This would be known as the beverage we know today, Green Chartreuse. The success of the liqueur was instantaneous and spread all across France and Europe.
Napoleon Bonaparte led the French Revolution in 1789 to overthrow the monarchy and establish a republic. His conquest lasted ten years and widely influenced the world with many Western European constructs. During the revolution, members of all religious orders were ordered to leave the country, and so all but one of the Carthusian monks left. With them, they carried a copy of the elixir, and hid the other within the monastery under the protection of the only remaining monk. Shortly later, this monk was arrested and sent to prison in Bordeaux. Fortunately, he was able to slip the manuscript of the elixir to a friend named Dom Basile.
Dom Basile believed the order would never find it’s way back home to France, and lacked the ability to make the elixir himself, se sold the elixir to the Monsieur Llotard, a pharmacist in Grenoble. Llotard never attempted to produce the elixir, and in 1810 Emperor Napoleon order all “secret” recipes of medicine to be turned into the Ministry of Interior. However, after Llotard’s submission, the manuscript was returned and marked “Refused.”
After the death of Monsieur Llotard, his heirs and successors gained the manuscript and returned it to the Carthusian Monks who had been back at their monastery in France since 1816. In 1838, the Monks were able to produce a sweeter version of Chartreuse simply known as Yellow Chartreuse.
Unfortunately for the Carthusian Monks, they once again ordered out of their Monastery. The Associations Bill of 1901 was passed by Pierre Waldeck-Rousseau. Pierre and his colleagues believed that stability of the government demanded regulation over wealthy religious organizations to maintain control of civil power. By 1903, the French Government nationalized the Chartreuse distillery and forced out the monks. The monks then traveled to Spain and built a distillery and monastery in Tarragona, then another in Marseille.
There they began producing their elixir with the same label, but additionally with a label stating, Liqueur fabriquée à Tarragone par les Pères Chartreux (liquor manufactured in Tarragona by the Charthusian Fathers). This version of Chartreuse was then nicknamed by consumers and fans as Une Tarragone, which then carried over to officially name the product from Marseille as Tarragone.
Back in France at the original distillery, the French Government sold the trademark Chartruese and the distillery’s assets to a group of distillers who started the corporation, Compagnie Fermière de la Grande Chartreuse. They began producing a a liqueur and sold it under the same name of Chartreuse. Thankfully, the Monks were able to stop the export of this product out of France, and by 1927, this counterfeit Chartreuse and it’s company were found in near bankruptcy. Kindly, a group of local businessmen in Voiron bought all the shares and sent them as a gift to the the true Carthusian Monks still in Tarragona. After careful planning and approval from the French government, the monks were finally able to return home, but yet again found hardship when a landslide completely destroyed the distillery in 1935. However, despite the eviction law, the French government sent Army engineers to relocate and help rebuild a new distillery in Voiron.
Following World War II, the government finally lifted the antiquity expulsion order, making the Carthusian Monks legal French citizens once more.
The process of making Chartreuse today is still done very traditionally. From start to finish the liqueurs are made by two monks. Both of whom are entrusted with this mission by the Order. The process is done in great secrecy and these two Brothers are the only ones who know the details of manufacturing.
Since 1989, when distillation in Tarragona was stopped, the liqueur is now exclusively made in Voiron. However, as of 2017 with the Bright Future Project, the Monks will be moving back to the Chartreuse Mountains in Aiguenoire in the village of Entre-deux-guiers.