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First Green Chartreuse recipe

The story of Green Chartreuse, the famous French liqueur still hand-crafted in the Chartreuse Mountains, is steeped in myth, monks and a mysterious manuscript.

Before we get to the colourful heart of the tale, we need to go back a thousand years or so to set the scene. The Carthusian Order (Chartreuse in French) began in 1084 when Bruno Hartenfaust, chancellor of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Reims in northern France, rejected the Church for being corrupt. Along with six other monks, all inspired by the Bible story of the first hermits in the Egyptian desert, they went to live in righteous solitude in the ‘desert’ of the Grande Chartreuse. At an altitude of 4,268 feet, it was a desolate, almost uninhabitable mountainous region fourteen miles north of Grenoble in south-eastern France.

They erected a small hermitage, apparently built on the edge of a cliff, and existed in austere solitude in bare stone cells, living in prayer and deep meditation. They wore hair shirts, white habits and had to live off the land, fishing and foraging in the nearby Chartreuse forests. No wonder they quickly gained a reputation as Christ’s Poor Men.

This small community of Carthusian monks (les Chartreux) self-subsisted in this remote landscape for hundreds of years, inspiring other ‘charterhouses’ around the country and the world. In 1257, St. Louis IX, the King of France, asked them to found a monastery in Vauvert, a suburb on the edge of Paris. Surrounded by gardens and nurseries, it became a centre for learning, especially in the advancement of medicinal herbs and plants. It’s here the monks would have met and worked with Arnaud de Villeneuve, an alchemist and physician, and his student Raymond Lulle. They were famous for their pioneering work in crafting new medicines using herbs and eaux-de-vie, distilled from wine, which they called aqua vitae or water of life. Raymond declared this new liquid to be “an emanation from the Deity” and it was widely regarded to be an elixir of life, capable of rejuvenating all who used it.

The monastery flourished and grew in Vauvert just as much as the capital city did around it. But the story starts to get really intriguing a couple of hundred years later, so let’s fast forward.

In 1605, the Vauvert monks were gifted an ancient manuscript by a nobleman called François-Annibal d’Estrées. He was high-ranking military officer under King Henry IV at the time, who later went on to great things, becoming an honoured Marshall of France.

Not a lot is known about the manuscript, or how it came to be in d’Estrées possession, but as a benefactor of the Order, he had faith in the monk’s knowledge and moral curiosity and thought this centre of learning the best place for it to be deciphered.

Inside the thick leather cover, handwritten in Old French, it contained the recipe and instructions for creating an elixir that was said to promise a ‘long life’, the true Holy Grail of the era.

Probably the work of an 16th century alchemist, it was a long and complex list of herbs and plants, a lot of which were incredibly rare or hard to find, with seemingly incomprehensible notes on how to bring them together as an elixir.

The manuscript was an exciting but frustrating gift. The monks knew they had something priceless in their hands, but its secret always just seemed to elude them. In 1614, Brother Claude Obriot even built a new laboratory at the monastery to better investigate the dark arts of herbal medicine but still no breakthrough came.

Gradually, the initial excitement of the ancient recipe started to wane, and the manuscript was quietly shelved as the monks focused on other more pressing godly pursuits. So, it wasn’t until 1736, over 120 years later, that the book was ‘rediscovered’ in the monastery’s library by a rising star of the order called Dom Michel Brunier de Larnarge while making a visit to the Paris charterhouse. He immediately recognised its importance and the opportunity it offered, and later had the book transferred to the original monastery in Grande Chartreuse after his appointment as prior and General of the Order in 1737.

He immediately put the manuscript into the care of two dedicated monks, Brother Bruno and Brother André, to uncover its secrets. They studied the text exhaustively, sourced new ingredients and applied the most up-to-date scientific thinking and distillation techniques to the recipe. After a few years, they eventually managed to create an ‘elixir’ they were happy with. The only problem was, it was red in colour!

Brother Jérôme Maubec took up the quest after their deaths, tinkering with their formula even more. He was the monastery’s chief chemist and apothecary, and after a complex series of careful infusions, distillations and minute macerations, finally claimed to have unravelled the elusive recipe in 1755.

The resulting 71% ABV liquid (which was still red) was carefully recorded by Maubec, who is quoted as saying, with some prescience, "it must not ever leave home, the Reverend Father”.

The baton was passed to Brother Antoine Dupuy when Maubec passed away in 1762. He improved the method in small but meaningful ways over the next two years, which resulted in the liquid going from red to “a little greenish” with a "pungent and active" vegetal taste.

Green Chartreuse had been born.

His recipe used around 130 plants, herbs, roots, bits of bark, eaux-de-vie and distilled honey. Its green colour was entirely natural, coming from the chlorophyll of the foraged plants (it’s still the only liqueur in the world with such a distinctive green colour). Dupuy faithfully transcribed his process in a seven-page manuscript with the title, "Composition of the Elixir of Chartreuse" in 1764.

The monks still believed their creation to be a health tonic, so made sure it was only available in small wooden bottles, which they distributed by donkey to the nearby markets of Grenoble and Chambery.

But the euphoria of the elixir de santé, and its tentative sales success in the region, was soon to wear off. On 7th June 1788, Grenoble endured The Day of the Tiles, a brutal people’s uprising caused by endless financial hardships exacerbated by the privileged classes, like the church and aristocracy. The city’s subsequent riot is credited by many as the spark that lit the touchpaper of the French Revolution the following year.

This was, of course, very bad news for the Carthusian monks. The National Assembly, commoners who were now in control of the country, set about abolishing feudalism, especially the large tithes, or taxes, taken by the church. In 1792, the monks were expelled from their monastery in Grande Chartreuse, and all the other charterhouses around France, and their possessions confiscated by the State.

They did, however, manage to smuggle out their precious manuscript detailing the recipe of their elixir. It passed from hand to hand, hidden for years by Dom Basile Nantas, a former vicar at the Chartreuse de Prémol in Provenance, before ending up with Monsieur Pierre Liotard, the former pharmacist of the Chartreuse in 1800, now living in Grenoble. These years were fearful ones. The expulsion of the Chartreuse was set to the backdrop of constant wars, revolution and the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte, who was effectively de facto military leader of France, even before his lavish coronation in 1804.

But Monsieur Liotard managed to keep the recipe a secret, never daring to make the elixir himself for fear of being found out. The recipe even ‘survived’ sweeping medicinal reforms in France, brought about to crack down on charlatanism and establish a new trusted and independent medical profession – which had previously been controlled by the clergy. Part of these reforms required physicians and pharmacists to submit all so-called ‘health’ recipes to Napoleon’s Ministry of the Interior for verification, which Monsieur Liotard duly did. Happily, it ‘passed’ whatever tests it was subjected to.

Napoleon was eventually defeated and exiled on the island of Elba in 1814. Louis XVIII, who himself had been in hiding since the start of the French Revolution, was restored to the throne. Napoleon escaped, re-established his French Empire but was defeated again in 1815 (sorry for the very abridged history lesson). But the accession of Louis XVIII was good news for the Chartreuse order.

By royal decree, the monks were authorised to return to their looted Grande Chartreuse monastery, where they were gratefully restored on 8th July 1816. The first thing they did? Install a small still to get the elixir back into production as best they could, albeit in limited numbers.

Things moved apace from hereon in. In 1824, a new good practical recipe” was written down by Dom Messy, with around 300 litres produced, sold locally and given to guests of the monastery. A year later it was further refined, when the monks developed a new “elixir of table or of health”, which was reduced in alcohol, and often used to help fight the terrible cholera epidemic in France that killed 100,00 people in 1832.

In 1835, the monks finally paid the widow of Pierre Liotard 3,000 francs for the safe return of their original recipe, which they used to make some final adjustments for their liqueur. The liqueur was officially marketed under the ‘brand name’ of Green Chartreuse

Success came quickly. The presence of soldiers in the massif in 1848 made its reputation. It went from health elixir to liqueur, drunk for pleasure, a secret passed from barracks to barracks until it was a household name throughout France.

The Green Chartreuse name was officially and legally registered and trademarked in 1852 by Father Garnier, the Order’s attorney, due to copycat drinks popping up all over France. Their bottles now proudly proclaimed the elixir was a “Liqueur sold at the Grande-Chartreuse”, accompanied by Monsieur Garnier’s signature.

A tiny aphid then helped sales even more, as French wine production dropped massively due to phylloxera infestation in the 1860s. It encouraged the monks to build a bigger more progressive distillery at Fourvoirie, not far from the monastery – which enabled them to grow from selling 559,000 litres in 1865 to an average of one million litres some 15 years later (even reaching three million litres between 1887 and 1889).

And the rest is history.

Its taste made it popular with bartenders and the world’s growing cocktail culture. Its colour made it proudly stand out in people’s drink’s cabinets at home. Its strange story sparked interest and intrigue, and saw it included in all sorts of eclectic songs, books, plays and films over the years.

F. Scott Fitzgerald has characters sipping it in his novel The Great Gatsby, set in the 1920s Prohibition era. John Steinbeck writes about martinis made with Chartreuse in Sweet Thursday. In Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh has his narrator Charles drink Green Chartreuse as a digestif. It’s even used as a plot point in Alfred Hitchcock’s film The Lady Vanishes.

One peculiar story even claims that journalist and explorer Sir Henry Morton Stanley carried Green Chartreuse through Africa on his search for Dr David Livingstone in 1871.

In the modern era, Tom Waits sang about it in When The Money Runs Out. Hunter S Thompson lists the liqueur as an essential part of his daily writing routine (just don’t try this at home: “12:05am-6:00am Chartreuse, cocaine, grass, Chivas, coffee, Heineken, clove cigarettes, grapefruit, Dunhills, orange juice, gin…”, as listed in Hunter: The Strange and Savage Life of Hunter S. Thompson by E. Jean Carroll).

Green Chartreuse even gets a walk on part in Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof, where the director himself slurs, “The only liqueur so good they named a color after it.”

From health elixir to Hollywood, Green Chartreuse has been on a crazy religious, historical and cultural journey over the centuries. But despite having to live through revolutions and expulsion, to you’ll be pleased to know the liqueur is still crafted in the Chartreuse mountains, close to where it was first distilled. And the recipe is still a very closely guarded secret known only ever to two or three monks at a time.

This colourful liqueur has fallen somewhat out of favour this century but is perhaps worth revisiting for a story that makes its competitors green with envy.


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