Chartreuse, that herbaceous green spirit created by monks in the French Alps. The story of Chartreuse is one of resilience. Exiled twice─first during the French Revolution and later in the 1900s when the French government tried to regulate and control production─the Chartreuse distillery is now comfortably located in the small town of Voiron, France, deep in the Alps.
What exactly is Chartreuse and why has it become so popular again over this last decade?
There are very few spirits on a bar shelf that command such a level of reverence while having so much of its history and production steeped in mystery.
It seems that you can ask five different people to explain what Chartreuse is and be met with five different answers. However, what exactly is Chartreuse and why has it become so popular again over this last decade?
In 1605, a group of Carthusian monks began to produce an elixir with a unique combination of 130 different ingredients. The herbs and spices used in this recipe were sourced from as far away as the Americas and the Orient, and all grown in the garden located on the monastery grounds in Paris. It wasn’t until 1789, during the French Revolution, that they fled Paris, escaping further south into the Alpine mountains.
One monk saved the original recipe for their elixir, and a new distillery was created. In the beginning, Chartreuse was very different from what we know today; it was a potent spirit created for medicinal purposes. To this day, Elixir Vegetal, the original formula, is sold exclusively in pharmacies throughout France.
It wasn’t until the 1800s that the Carthusian monks began taking the original recipe and incorporating it into a tasty, liqueur-style spirit. Still using 130 different herbs and spices, the monks also applied a new and very distinct distillation and maceration process that gives Chartreuse its unique color.
The Last Word helped to get Chartreuse off the back bar and into the spotlight where it belongs
The Chartreuse Distillery
I was fortunate enough to travel to the Chartreuse distillery and receive an extended tour of their operations. While they wouldn’t reveal all the details surrounding its production, here’s what I was able to put together. . .
Chartreuse starts off as a neutral brandy that is distilled for over seven hours in hundred-plus-year-old copper stills. During the distillation process, an unknown number of ingredients are added to the still; this is the first infusion process. The remaining herbs are introduced in the Maceration Room, a reserved space on the second floor of the distillery that only the monks are allowed to enter. After three weeks of macerating, it spends an unspecified amount of time resting in oak barrels before being bottled.
While there are still just two monks at any given time that know the full recipe and maceration process, today a handful of assistants are used. The staff has also been able to streamline different steps of this time-honored process with computers so that the monks can devote more of their time to their monastic lifestyle.
Chartreuse as We Know It Today
Chartreuse has never been more popular than it is today. Over 50% of all chartreuse produced is exported internationally, with the U.S. taking the crown away from Spain last year as the largest consumer.
How did we get here? The answer, mostly, is in a cocktail, The Last Word. An equal parts mixture of gin, lime juice, maraschino liqueur, and finally, green chartreuse, this cocktail is shaken with ice and then strained into a chilled coupe glass.
The drink was originally featured on the Detroit Athletic Club’s cocktail menu. The Last Word sold for 35 cents and in 1916, was the most expensive drink on the menu. After prohibition, it was featured in the 1951 classic cocktail book Bottoms Up! and attributed Frank Fogarty as its creator.
Fast-forward to 2004, when bartender Murray Stetson of Seattle’s Zig Zag Café stumbled onto the recipe and the rest, as they say, is history. Guests immediately fell in love with the combination of flavors, and it quickly worked its way to the East Coast bartending scene where it further cemented itself as a classic that is here to stay.
If the story of Chartreuse is one of resilience, then the story of its favored cocktail is one of redemption. The Last Word helped to get Chartreuse off the back bar and into the spotlight where it belongs. In today’s bartending world, a skilled bartender has just as much respect for it as a serious ingredient in a cocktail as the monks do when they create this amazing spirit. And, they’ve been doing just that since 1605.
The Last Word:
.75 lime juice
.75 Maraschino Liqueur
.75 Vigilant Gin
.75 Green Chartreuse
Fill a shaker tin with all the ingredients, add ice, and shake vigorously for thirty seconds. Then, strain the blend into a chilled coupe glass. Enjoy!