The first thing that comes to mind when thinking about Chartreuse liqueur is probably the zingy yellow-green color that perfectly complements its name. The color is a result of the strong herbal base that also gives Chartreuse its characteristic, herbaceous taste that’s both sweet and bitter, spicy and smooth.
Chartreuse’s history is just as colorful as the liquid in the bottle. It is produced by monks belonging to one of the most devout Catholic orders. The monk-made liqueur is shrouded in mystery surrounding its recipe, production, and the lives of those who make it — though perhaps that’s part of the allure of the herbal green spirit.
Read on for 13 more things you should know about Chartreuse.
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This liqueur comes from a French monastery.
When the Carthusian Order was established in the Chartreuse Mountains of southeast France in 1084, its members led lives typical of Catholic monks; silence, prayer, contemplation, and solitude were emphasized. Over a millennium later, these values still hold true, but the Order has also gained something of a celebrity status as producers of a world-famous liqueur brand.
Green Chartreuse originated within Carthusian monastery walls in 1764. To this day, both green and yellow varieties are still made by monks of the Order.
The original recipe was really, really complicated.
Since the Chartreuse de Paris monastery was founded in 1257, its gardens have played an important role in the monks’ lives, with residents developing a keen interest in plants and their medicinal properties. Then, in 1605, a friend of the monastery entrusted the Carthusians with a mysterious recipe for a powerful elixir. The monks tried to crack the code laid out for them in the manuscript, but the instructions and ingredients were so complex, they couldn’t quite get it right. Finally, after over a century of trial and error, green Chartreuse was born. The monks condensed the winning formula into a shorter seven-page recipe, which has been used to make the drink ever since.
Only two people in the world know how to make Chartreuse.
Despite Chartreuse’s consistent growth since the 17th century thanks largely to modern-day production and transportation methods (bottles were originally transported via donkeys), Carthusians still play their liqueur-making cards close to their chests. Only two monks are privy to the drink’s detailed ingredient list and recipe. Tasks like bottling and sales are now delegated to an outside team to keep up with demand, but the recipe remains exclusive monastery knowledge. It’s passed down every generation to a set of two new monks.
It was intended to be used medicinally, but then it went mainstream.
Like many alcoholic drinks of the early days, Chartreuse was not meant for the masses. It was developed as a purported treatment for the ill — touting immune-strengthening, disease-preventing, anti-inflammatory, and digestive properties — and was notably used as medicine during the cholera epidemic of the mid-1800s. Patients enjoyed it so much that they soon began drinking it even in good health.
It’s been deemed the elixir of long life.
It’s a title that’s the stuff of fairytales. The first manuscript given to the Order described the drink as an “elixir of long life.” The recipe didn’t promise immortality, but its creators did believe in the power of plants to heal and enhance the lives of its drinkers. Given its medicinal value and strong plant base, it’s a title that’s stuck around into modern times.
It’s made from 130 plants.
What exactly is in a bottle of Chartreuse is a secret we’ll never get to know, but the Carthusians have let us in on one hint: There are 130 different plants, herbs, and flowers used in its recipe. The type of plants can be narrowed down to those that grow in the southeast France region, as the monks devised the recipe using ingredients from their monastery gardens. The rest remains unknown.
That green color is all natural.
There’s not a drop of green food coloring in Chartreuse bottles. The hue of the drink is entirely naturally occurring. Where does it come from? Chlorophyll. That’s right — the same pigment that gives plants their signature green color is responsible for the vibrant color in the bottle.
Chartreuse also comes in yellow.
The sweeter, lower-ABV version of Chartreuse didn’t emerge until 1838, over 70 years after the original liqueur was first made. While not as popular as its older sibling, yellow Chartreuse has still made its mark on the drinks industry, retaining many of the herbal characteristics that made the original stand out to begin with. It has a bright yellow color derived naturally from saffron — the perfect complement to its green counterpart.
Marketing the brand is no easy task.
How do you sell consumers on an alcoholic beverage whose ingredients are a mystery? What advertising approach is effective but not offensive to the monks who make it? These are the questions that the Chartreuse marketing team regularly grapples with. The globe and cross icon that represents the Order has been one source of trouble — while the emblem is on Chartreuse bottles, it is a religious symbol, not a brand logo. Though Chartreuse has had to tread more carefully with marketing than most booze brands, it’s a worthwhile sacrifice to maintain their relationship with its makers. After all, without the Order, there is no Chartreuse.
It’s versatile enough to deserve a space on your bar cart.
Don’t let the color fool you. Chartreuse is cut out for way more than just St. Patrick’s Day drinks (although there are some great Chartreuse cocktail options out there for the holiday). Chartreuse is best known for its use in the Last Word cocktail, but it also holds up well in riffs on classics like Negronis and G&Ts.
What came first, the color or the drink?
In this case, it’s the drink. Chartreuse liqueur was around for over a century before the color chartreuse was first named in 1884. The bright green-yellow hue was making appearances in art and fashion long before it had an official name, but it’s all thanks to the liqueur that the shade became known by all as chartreuse. Its bragging rights are well deserved, too. No other beverage can say it has a color named after it.
Chartreuse took a serious hit in popularity in the 1980s.
Alcohol consumption in the U.S. was on the decline in the ‘80s, and Chartreuse struggled to keep up sales in the American market. Its popularity in France and Europe took a hit, too. The Carthusians relied on liqueur sales to support their lives in the monastery, so they had to get creative to secure Chartreuse’s spot on the market once more. A series of new product launches and rebranding tactics emerged, and fortunately the public bought into it. By the 2000s, Chartreuse had recovered from the 2 percent global decrease in sales that had hurt the brand in the ‘80s.
Its fans include musicians, authors, and filmmakers.
Chartreuse was the shining star of one piece of celebrity work and has played a role in many others. It was the muse for ZZ Top’s 2012 anthem Chartreuse — the band became a big fan of the liqueur while on tour in France — and has received additional lyrical nods in songs by Frank Zappa and Tom Waits. Bruce Springsteen discussed Chartreuse in his 2016 biography, Scott Fitzgerald and Amélie Nothomb both referenced the beverage in their novels, and shots of Chartreuse were shared by the cast of Quentin Tarantino’s 2007 film “Death Proof.”