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The long and legendary history of Chartreuse, the elixir of long life

3 min read

Chartreuse has a long and legendary history.
It was 1084 AD when St. Bruno of Cologne formed an order of silent monks called the Carthusians (Chartreuse).
They lived in a valley of the Chartreuse Mountains, a region of the French Alps, near Voiron. By 1605, they were a large, well-respected order, and King Henri IV’s Marshal of Artillery presented the Carthusians with an ancient alchemical manuscript, that contained a recipe for an elixir that would prolong life.
But, after looking over the document, even the most learned of monks were at a loss: the concoction required 130 different plants, as well as advanced distillation, infusion, and maceration techniques. King Henri’s man understood that it would take someone with great knowledge and skill to take this recipe to a final product, and it was too complex even for the learned monks, so for a century or so it sat untouched. In the early 1700s, the manual was sent to the Charter House of the Order Le Grande Chartreuse, near Grenoble. The monks there studied it intently. By 1740, Élixir Végétal was a reality but, even then, it’s assumed they took creative liberties.

While the elixir’s purpose was that of a health tonic, many enjoyed its unique flavor and drank it like a beverage.
A lone monk delivered the first bottles of potent herbal tonic, which was 69 percent alcohol, to surrounding villages by mule.
But it didn’t end there as, in 1764, the Carthusians adapted the recipe into a milder liqueur called Green Chartreuse. This version, which was still potent at 55 percent alcohol, is the one we consume still today.
Some describe it as an herbaceous, sinus-clearing drink that’s almost mentholated in its immediate heat.
The monks themselves recommend serving it cold, either chilled or on the rocks.
Then came the French Revolution, and in 1793 the monks were forced to leave France, and they did not produce any liqueur during this time. They were allowed to return to the Grand Chartreuse Monastery in 1816, and by 1838 they had developed a milder, sweeter version of their famed liqueur that was colored with saffron: yellow Chartreuse.
Once again, in 1903 the French government expelled the Monks from their home in the mountains.
This time they took their recipes with them to Tarragona, Spain, where Chartreuse was produced until after World War II. They were allowed to return to France and have been producing it in Voiron ever since.

The recipe remains a secret that is only known to three monks. One, the Father Superior of the order, holds the entire recipe, while the two monks who actually produce Chartreuse each know a different half of the recipe. The 130-plus herbs, flowers and spices are shipped to the monastery, where the monks blend their half in separate sacks and then travel down the mountain to the distillery in Voiron to produce the liqueurs and elixir.
Despite increasing demand, the order has continued the tradition of having just two monks handle the entire process, Dom Benoît and Brother Jean-Jacques, who know all the ingredients and how to turn them into the beloved, moss-toned liqueur. Once they’ve readied a batch, they age it in huge oak casks inside the world’s longest liqueur cellar.
Several years later, the same men test the product and decide if it’s ready for bottling.
That’s where their work ends, as all subsequent phases of production are handled by other parties.

The liqueur is now sold all over the world, with funds going toward the monastery.
Buying alcohol lauded for longevity is absolutely a right cause, and you’d be a sinner not to drink to that!

Images from web – Google Research