History of the Chartreuse (2/2)

Posted on09/02/2020 by


In a series of episodic newsletters dedicated to the Chartreuse liqueur, we've told you about its origins, its history during the 17th century, the specificities of its different years of production... The Chartreuse liqueur is a part of the Carthusian Order, the monks who've been making it for more than 400 years. Here's the second part of its story.


Ep.8: The Chartreuse Recipe


The year is 1605, and the Chartreuse elixir is about to be born. François-Annibal d'Estrées, then Duke of Estrées, visits the Carthusian monastery of Vauvert (built in Paris during the 13th century, at the demand of King Louis IX) and gives the monks a mysterious manuscript. Inside is the recipe for an "elixir of long life", the dream of every alchemist at the time.

The brothers decide to study the elixir's formula, as they believe it could provide many health benefits and become a useful remedy. Research begins and many imperfect prototypes are created, but the plant mixture is ultimately put on the back burner after too many failures. In 1737, they send the manuscript to the Grand Chartreuse of Grenoble.

There, the Carthusians continue the work done by Vauvert and they task Brother Jérôme Maubec, their apothecary, with analyzing the famous elixir. And so he does, working tirelessly for nearly thirty years. Finally, in 1764, he manages to perfect the formula and thus creates what the monks are now calling the "Herbal Elixir of the Grande-Chartreuse".


Ep.9: The Herbal Elixir


In the Grande Chartreuse's pharmacy, Brother Jérôme refines the Herbal Elixir's formula. He adds more sugar, lowers the quite high alcohol level (going from 82° to 69°) and modifies its reddish tint to make it look greener. He strays a bit from the original recipe, which looked more like an encyclopedia than anything else, but still keeps the 130 medicinal plants.

This elixir is supposed to cure many illnesses: epilepsy, cholera, high fever, indigestion... Which is why the Order decides to share it with the people. It entrusts the task of selling the bottles to Brother Charles, who saddles his trusty mule and goes to every local market to distribute the miraculous elixir. Right now, the sales are limited to Grenoble and Chambéry.

Unfortunately, fate once again gets in the monks' way in 1789, year of the French Revolution. The newly formed government decrees that all ecclesiastical goods now belong to the State, and that they will be seized by force if necessary. The monastery of the Grande Chartreuse is thus closed down and the monks have to flee, taking the elixir's recipe with them.


Ep.10: The Carthusians during the Revolution


Officially exiled from France in 1793, the Carthusian Order manages to send a copy of the manuscript containing the recipe for the Herbal Elixir to a monk: Dom Basile Nantas, who has taken refuge in La Valsainte Charterhouse (in Switzerland). A few years later, Basile hands over the precious book to Pierre Liotard, a former Brother, now pharmacist in Grenoble.

In 1810, Liotard has to give the recipe to Napoleon Bonaparte's Ministry of Interior, because the Emperor wishes to regulate the production and sale of what he calls "secret remedies". The manuscript gets reviewed and, because the Herbal Elixir is already well-known by the French population, it is not classified as "secret". Plus, the recipe was probably too hard to copy.

In 1815, Napoleon suffers a terrible blow in Waterloo, against the armies of the Duke of Wellington, and is forced to abdicate. He is imprisoned by the British on St. Helena Island. Good news for the Carthusians, who could now come back to France. A year later, Liotard dies and the monks get their recipe back. Production, which had become vital to them, can resume.


Ep.11: The Chartreuse Liqueur


The monks have an idea: why not turn their famous Herbal Elixir into a softer drink everyone could enjoy? Thus, in 1840, the very first Green Chartreuse (55% ABV), known as the "Liqueur of Health", appears in market stalls. The same year, a Yellow Chartreuse also comes out. It's an even softer version (with only 40% ABV), nicknamed the "Queen of Liqueurs".

Chartreuse becomes all the rage and, in 1848, the Brothers realize that their new means of income, which has replaced woodcutting and metalworking, is taking up a lot of space. To solve this problem, they build a new distillery in a small village called Fourvoirie, a few miles from the monastery, where their old workshop still was (although abandoned since 1792).

Progressively, competitors and imitators crawl out of the woodwork. The most tenacious one being the Meuniers, liquorists since 1840, who have managed to secure a copy of the original manuscript. To protect the Carthusian "brand", Father Dom Louis Garnier designs the Chartreuse logo: his own signature, next to the Order's emblem (a globe surmounted by a cross).

Fourvoirie opens its doors in 1860. During its first year of existence, the White Chartreuse is also created (43% ABV at first, and then 37% ABV from 1886 onward) and given the name "Melissa". These variations of the original Green Chartreuse, itself a softer version of the famous "Elixir of Long Life", are now being mass produced by the monks.


Ep.12: Exiled in Tarragona


1903, two years before the famous Law on the Separation of the Churches and the State. The Carthusian Order has managed to escape the French government for years, but it has now come to an end. Because of a new decree signed by Charles de Freycinet (President of the Council) and Jules Ferry (Minister of Public Instruction), the monks are deported.

Back in exile. Before leaving, they make sure to burn all the plants stored in Fourvoirie, so Henri Lecouturier (the state liquidator, appointed by President Emile Loubet and tasked with selling seized goods and other assets) finds only ashes in the warehouse. The Brothers take refuge in Italy, at first, before heading West to open another distillery in Tarragona, Spain.

There, the Carthusians continue to make their liqueur. They hold on to the trade name "Chartreuse" (although it's now technically owned by the French government), and simply add this mention on their bottle labels: "Liquor manufactured in Tarragona by the Carthusian Fathers". In France, the drink is now known under the code name "Tarragona".

During the monks' exile, the French government reopens the distillery in Fourvoirie. The "Chartreuse" brand is sold to the Cusenier family, which exploits it via the name "Compagnie Fermière de la Grande-Chartreuse". Unfortunately for the Cuseniers, they keep failing at trying to reproduce the original recipe, and the company goes out of business in 1927.


Ep.13: The Return of the Monks


In 1921, the Carthusians sail to Marseille and open yet another distillery. They still can't use their "Chartreuse" brand, so the name "Tarragona" will do instead. Luckily, a few local merchants have bought all the shares from the now defunct Compagnie Fermière de la Grande-Chartreuse and, as an act of pure kindness, offer them to the monks.

The Chartreuse is finally back with its rightful owners, and the famous liquor can make its great comeback in France, in 1929. All the counterfeit bottles in circulation at the time now have to compete with the real thing again. Meanwhile, the Brothers and Fathers take ownership of Fourvoirie once more and production continues. At least, it does until 1935.

That year, in December, a mudslide almost completely destroys the distillery. Perchance, the wood barrels stored in the cellar have not been damaged. Still, the entire site needs to be relocated elsewhere. Surprisingly enough, the French government lends the monks a hand, by helping them build a new distillery in Voiron, 20 km from the monastery.

June 1940. The Fathers can officially go back to the Grande Chartreuse, thanks to the government of Vichy, favorable to religious congregations returning home. One year later, a new law gave the members of the Order their citizenship back. Some years later, in 1970, unable to cope with the demands, the monks entrust their brand to the Chartreuse Diffusion company.


Ep.14: The Chartreuse, Today


We're now in 2013, the year Emmanuel Delafon takes the helm of the Chartreuse Diffusion company. He immediately faces a very tough choice: completely renovate the old Voiron site, in order to comply with security requirements; or relocate the entire production somewhere else. He ultimately decides to move everything.

A year later, the Order installs it seventh distillery in Aiguenoire, 12 km from Grenoble. It feels like some sort of divine justice, since the monks have bought this very patch of land in 1618, but lost it after the French Revolution drove them out of the country. The brand new Aiguenoire site was inaugurated on August 30, 2018 and it is still active today.

As for the Chartreuse recipe itself, it hasn't changed much since 1737. It's been transmitted orally, and only two people know it: Father Dom Benoît (who handles communication with the outside world) and Brother Jean-Jacques. Among the 130 plants found in the mixture, only a third still grows in the Alpine region. The remaining ingredients have to be imported.

Some lucky ethnobotanists have read the first page of the manuscript. They quickly confirmed the presence of plants such as betony, chamomile, lavander, marjoram, sage, or thyme. As for the rest, it remains a mystery to this day. Some people say that copies of the manuscript still exist, hidden somewhere in the walls of the monks' Charterhouse...

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