Chartreuse has long been one of my favorite spirits and one of the main reasons is because of the amazing history of the product. Recently, I had a chance to talk to Tim Masters of Frederick Wildman and Sons, the importer of Chartreuse, and gained even more of an appreciation for the product.
What is Chartreuse?
Chartreuse is a spirit infused with 130 different herbs and spices and it was originally created as an elixir of long life. It has amazing complexity and is one of the only spirits in the world that gets better the longer it sits in the bottle.
The original formulation is believed to have been created by an alchemist and gifted to the monks of the Order of Chartreuse in 1605. It has been a closely guarded secret ever since and historically only a handful of people know the entire recipe (2-3 monks in the world). Each monk knows the entire recipe and only 2 monks actively work on the product. One of the monks is responsible for purchasing all of the ingredients and the other monk is responsible for blending the raw ingredients so others can help work on the production process.
More than the contents that are in the bottle, Chartreuse represents a devotion of faith and sales of Chartreuse help to sustain a life of prayer and worship for the monks of the Order of Chartreuse.
Landmark years for Chartreuse production:
Over the centuries that Chartreuse has been produced, there have been a few different styles. Some of these expressions of the original formula have come and gone, but the many have remained the same for almost 300 years.
- 1737 – Elixir Vegetal de la Grand-Chartreuse was first produced using the manuscript. 138 proof.
- 1764 – Green Chartreuse was first produced using the same 130 herbs and spices as the Elixir Vegetal. The proof was dropped to 110.
- 1838 – Yellow Chartreuse was produced with a much lower proof of 86 (or possibly 80).
- 1840 – Chartreuse Blanche was produced until 1880. It was produced again between 1886 and 1900, but no further production since.
- 1903 – The monks were kicked out of France and their distillery was nationalized by the French government. The monks began production in Tarragona, Spain and for a brief time in Marseilles, France. (1921-1929). The Chartreuse Trademark was sold to another distilling company and unsuccessful attempts were made to reproduce the recipe. The new com
- 1930’s The monks were once again gifted with Chartreuse, but this time in the form of their original trademark and distillery in Foirvoire. A new distillery in Voiron, France after a landslide demolished the Foirvoire distillery.
- 1963 – Green and Yellow Chartreuse VEP are released. VEP is regular chartreuse with more barrel aging
- 1989 – Production of Chartreuse in Tarragona, Spain is halted. Voiron, France is currently the only distillery where Chartreuse is created.
Here are a few key dates to help you determine the age of an old bottle of Chartreuse
As was mentioned earlier, Chartreuse is one of the only spirits that improves in the bottle. Over time the intensity of some of the ingredients begin to mellow, and other herbal ingredients begin to dominate. If you are interested in adding vintage Chartreuse to your beverage program or home bar, here are a few importers and key dates that will help to narrow down the age range of a specific bottle of this beautiful spirit. The dates below are to the best of my knowledge and there does seem to be differing opinions on specific dates.
- 19th Century to 1895 – Jos F. Boll
- 1895 to prohibition – Batjer
- 1933 – Shentley importers
- 1940’s Scheifflein and Sons (possibly 1940’s to 1980’s)
- 1969 Sussex (possibly early 1980’s)
- 1972 Yellow Chartreuse lowered in proof from 86 proof to 80
- 1977 UPC Code added to bottles of Chartreuse
- 1981 21 Brands (possibly mid to late 1980’s)
- 1990 Frederick Wildman and Sons. This importer has added a code on the bottle of every Chartreuse to know exactly when a bottle of Chartreuse was sealed. If you look at the cap, you will see a series of numbers preceded by the letter “L”. On my bottle, the code is L929141. The L stands for lot number and if you add the first three numbers, 929 in this case, to the year that the order of Chartreuse was founded, 1084, you get the year that the bottle of Chartreuse was sealed. 929+1084 is 2013. The last 3 numbers is the day of the year that the bottle was sealed. My bottle of Chartreuse was sealed on the 141st day of the year.
Here are a few useful links if you want to learn more about this beautiful spirit or Carthusian Monks.
History of Chartreuse– they even have a virtual tour of the distillery and a few cocktail recipes.
Drinksplanet.com – Great resource for getting an approximate age/value of an old bottle of alcohol.
Article written by Sean Kenyon – A great read and an amazing snapshot in bartending history.
Into Great Silence – Documentary examining the life of Carthusian Monks inside the monastery of Grande Chartreuse.
We’ve all heard rumors regarding Chartreuse, leave your favorite rumor in the comments below. This should be interesting 🙂