Posted by: mdmusingsie | January 26, 2020

A Wee Dram Before I Go

On my final tourist excursion before leaving France we visited Chartreuse Distillery (known as the Caves de la Chartreuse).  The beverage consists of a blend of 130 herbs from an archaic formula found in a manuscript that pre-dates 1605 when it was given to the Carthusian monks living in the Chartreuse Mountains in France.  The formula claimed to be the “elixir of life”.

It would be nearly 160 more years before the manuscript was fully decoded and the first batches were brewed.  For many of the earliest years the elixir was used for medicinal purposes.

The 130 herbs, plants, and botanicals that make up the liquor also give it the natural green colour; unlike other green beverages which are artificially coloured.  The distillery has a few of the ingredients on display which includes juniper berries, orange peel, ginko, and fennel.

The original medicinal variety (still available today) is 69% alcohol (138 proof).  When it became a beverage it was watered down to 55% alcohol (110 proof).  In the mid 1800’s they came up with a milder version (40% alcohol or 80 proof – same as your average bottle of Jameson) which is known as Yellow Chartreuse.

Based on my personal palette, I found the green variety to be smoother in taste and preferable to the yellow.  Either provides a very unique taste sensation (some would say it’s an acquired taste) from any other liquors I’ve tried before.

Although the recipe has changed hands a few times over the centuries, it is now back with the Chartreuse monks where only two monks at any one time know the formula.  The ingredients are assembled at the monastery and transported to the distillery to complete the process.

Unlike a lot of spirits like whiskey which has a specific aging process, Chartreuse is ready when the tasters determine it meets the standard.  There are four laypeople responsible for assisting with the tasting.  The liquid ferments in huge oak barrels, some of which are hundreds of years old, and several batches may be combined if the tasters determine one isn’t quite right.  Given the quality and strength of an herb may vary from one planting season to the next, based on soil conditions and weather patterns, combined with the sheer number of ingredients, it makes sense that some blending may be required to get that ‘just right’ taste.

The tour was in French, and fortunately my friend could provide much of the translations.  They do have specially arranged English tours during the late spring/summer months.  The standard tour is free (including samples of green and yellow Chartreuse), but there is a fancy English tour (pre-booking required) with a personalized tasting session, available for a price.

We were told that they have to move the distillery outside of town (it’s nearly in the centre at the moment) due to concerns over the flammability of such large quantities of alcohol.  For the same reason, we were required to turn our phones off, so, sorry, no photos.  If you’re interested there’s more information on their website (or give it a try at your local liquor store).


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