— from “Reginald on Christmas Presents” by Saki (Hector Hugh Munro)
You can’t beat Chartreuse for an origin story.
In 1605, a French military officer wandered into a Carthusian monastery clutching an alchemical recipe for what he claimed was the Elixir of Life. How did he come into possession of it? Why did he decide to pass this information on to The Church? What did the monks hope to gain from it? (Seriously, I can’t imagine anything more hellish than combining eternal life with celibacy.)
Satisfying answers to these questions are hard to find on the internet but I intend to fill them in with my own whimsy the next time I take a stab at writing a novel. There are far too few occult booze thrillers out there. I could become the Dan Brown of cocktail scribes. There are worse things to which to aspire.
All that aside, what is known is that the manuscript made its way to the Carthusian headquarters in the Chartreuse mountains of France where the monks set about translating it and then attempting to create the magical elixir. Turns out, it was just too difficult to reproduce and the recipe was set aside.
Then, in the 18th century, Brother Jerome Maubec and his associate Brother Antoine successfully unraveled portions of the mysterious and intricate recipe such that they were able to produce a version of it, and named their invention for the mountains in which they lived. Their Chartreuse was still wickedly difficult to concoct, involving according to official accounts 130 different herbs, flowers and other still-secret ingredients; and, while their potion did not extend life (or so they claim) it was believed to have medicinal powers.
Their tonic became very popular, no doubt because it tipped the tipple scales at 71 per cent alcohol — a perfectly acceptable proof for the Augustan Age but not something that worked well down through the years. Over time, the recipe was adapted and settled into a milder 55 per cent version which is close to what we can buy today.
The Carthusian monks are still behind the making of Chartreuse. They even produce a sweeter and milder-still version called Yellow Chartreuse that is difficult to come by in Canada (and impossible in Saskatchewan).
A few interesting side notes: The colour chartreuse, which is a shade of yellowish green, is named for the liqueur (which is named for the mountain range) and not, as you’d expect, the other way around. As for the colour of Chartreuse itself, that comes from its chlorophyll content.
Also, it is said that at any time, only two Carthusian monks know the secret of brewing Chartreuse and when one of them nears death, they find a successor and pass on their knowledge. (This method of keeping a trade secret is also used by executives in the Kentucky Fried Chicken corporation. That is no lie.)
Naturally, one is led to wonder as to how we know that such a succession process actually takes place. Has anyone ever seen a dying Carthusian? I thought not. Perhaps the original Elixir of Life was successfully produced back in the 1600s and the same monks who made it back then are selling a watered down version to this very day.
Poor celibate bastards. At least they made it to the age of internet porn. That must’ve been a relief.
If — accepting that it’s brewed by immortal, masturbating monks — you are inclined to sample some Green Chartreuse, you are in for a treat. It is a powerful herbal liqueur, sweet and full tasting. It reminds me of the Czech’s Becherovka, but it is much richer in flavour and more satisfying to quaff.
That it is still popular is attested to by its many appearances in literature and film. Chartreuse is mentioned in the Saki short story quoted from above. As well, it is happily consumed in The Great Gatsby, Brideshead Revisited, Bradbury’s “The Fox and the Forest,” Tarantino’s Deathproof and in an episode of Red Dwarf.
As for cocktails to try it in, I offer….
The Bijou Cocktail
1 oz gin
1 oz Green Chartreuse
1 oz sweet vermouth
1 dash orange bitters
Shake well with ice. Strain into a prechilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a maraschino cherry and lemon twist.