France Wine

Understanding Chartreuse – a comparative tasting

Paris: October 2023

Produced by the enigmatic Carthusian monks, Chartreuse is a liqueur like no other. What’s even more fascinating is that its precise recipe remains a secret, known to only two or three monks. As it becomes a cocktail-making favourite and with its production kept limited, obtaining Chartreuse is increasingly challenging. Allow us to guide you through its history, explain how it tastes and which cuvées are the best.

The origins of Chartreuse Verte and Jaune

The origins of these liqueurs can be traced back to the mountains of Chartreuse in the year of 1084, where Bruno of Cologne, the former dean of the Cathedral of Reims, and his companions sought solace. Over the centuries, the Carthusian monks there perfected their expertise in botanical medicine and distillation. By the 17th century, they were crafting eaux-de-vie — spirits made from diverse herbs — for medicinal purposes. Recognizing their skill, in 1605, François-Annibal d’Estrées gave them a manuscript believed to detail an ‘Elixir of Long Life’. This document, however, remained an enigma to the monks for more than a century as they endeavoured to unlock its secrets.

Notably, Brother Jerome Maubec, the apothecary of La Grande Chartreuse, undertook this challenge fervently. Though he passed away before unravelling the entire manuscript, the torch was then passed to Brother Antoine. Through his dedication, a formula was perfected by 1737. This resulting elixir, a potent brew infused with 130 herbs and spices in a base of wine alcohol, didn’t promise eternal life as once believed, but to them, its curative powers were undeniable.

However, the course of history for La Grande Chartreuse irrevocably changed with the onset of the French Revolution in 1789. The Carthusian monks, like their counterparts in other religious communities, were forced out, and in the ensuing chaos the manuscript nearly faced obliteration. In a tale reminiscent of cloak-and-dagger adventures, the manuscript was covertly passed between the monks, narrowly evading seizure. It wasn’t until the post-Napoleonic era that the monks, having returned to their Grande Chartreuse, would once again lay claim to the manuscript. The manuscript’s return in 1835 inspired a renewed spirit among them. Under Father Garnier’s guidance, they crafted the Chartreuse Verte and the Chartreuse Jaune by 1840. These two recipes achieved great commercial success and are believed to have remained unchanged ever since.

From the 20th century onward

In the early 1900s, scepticism towards religious entities intensified in France, seeing them as potential barriers to intellectual progress. This would lead to the 1901 Waldeck Rousseau law, legislation that affected the Carthusian monks, resulting in the confiscation of their belongings and eventually their expulsion by 1903. In response, they swiftly relocated their distillery to Tarragona, Spain by 1904. However, their challenges persisted as they grappled with imitations of their liqueurs in France, primarily from a large liquorist, Cusenier. To distinguish their product, they introduced a label bearing the mark Liqueur fabriquée à Tarragone par les Pères Chartreux. This struggle for authenticity continued until 1929 when the monks managed to reclaim their original brand. The post-war era heralded a period of rejuvenation for the Chartreuse brand. By the 1980s, with a decline in consumption, the Carthusians countered by introducing new products like the ‘Génépi des Pères Chartreux’ and the 9th Centenary liqueur in 1983. The late 20th century saw the repatriation of the Carthusians to France and the closure of the Tarragona distillery in 1989.

Chartreuse liqueurs made a resounding comeback in the 21st century, especially within the cocktail community. The demand keeps rising, with a robust revenue of 23.5 million euros, about 1.2 million litres are produced yearly as of 2022. In order to ensure that their monastic life remains unchanged, the Carthusians have decided to cap their production at current levels. This has caused a shortage in the USA, but in France, where most of the production is sold, the liqueur remains easy to find. New cuvées are still being created though. The ‘Cuvée des Meilleurs Ouvriers de France’ in 2008, is one of our favourites, a collaboration between MOF sommeliers and the monks.

Tasting of the all the Chartreuse liqueurs

One of the best ways to understand Chartreuse is through a comparative tasting of all the cuvées. The annual tasting organised in Paris by Caves Bossetti’s club Fous de Chartreuse is a great occasion to do so.

Our notes below describe all these in detail. However, as a summary, yellow Chartreuses are more approachable in their youth, featuring milder green notes and a rounder, sweeter profile. Their élevage in oak barrels is more noticeable.

Age makes a remarkable difference in complexity. The menthol and tarragon notes of the green cuvées become less dominant, more layered, evolving into aromas of gentian and flowers. The aged yellow cuvées offer similar, if not greater, complexity with notes of saffron, turmeric, and candied citrus.

Chartreuse Verte 2023
Nose:Aromatic. Menthol, lots of tarragon and aniseed. Punchier nose, less integrated.
Palate:Very punchy menthol attack. Green and grassy with lots of tarragon, sage and aniseed.

Chartreuse Jaune 2023
Nose:Less aromatic than the MOF and the verte. Menthol, with notes of turmeric.
Palate:Sweetest and more honeyed. Notes of menthol, touch of turmeric and tarragon. Less rounded than the older cuvées. It finishes with notes of honey and gentian. There is a slight bitterness in the finish too, a feeling of astringency.
Chartreuse – Cuvée des Meilleurs Ouvriers de France (MOF) 2023
Nose:Very aromatic. Menthol note dominates, with touches of tarragon and gentiane. More integrated than the verte. Some vanilla too.
Palate:More honeyed in the palate, with the menthol blending with notes of aniseed and tarragon. Finish of candied lemon.

Chartreuse – Cuivre 2021
Nose:Very floral! Jasmine and chamomile if one doesn’t swirl the glass. But the backbone is gentian and turmeric.
Palate:On the palate, it has a stronger menthol note than the 2023 jaune, but it’s very intertwined with notes of gentian and turmeric. Very honeyed palate, but less sweet than 2023. Very complex overall, particularly the finish which also shows aniseed, sage and tarragon.

We then proceeded with a vertical tasting of a cuvée crafted especially for the Fous de Chartreuse club: a mix of Chartreuse Verte and Jaune whose proportions change over the years.

Chartreuse – Cuvée des Fous de Chartreuse 2023
Nose:Milder nose, and very well integrated aromas. More nuanced and delicate. Notes of chamomile, gentian, menthol and tarragon all intermingle.
Palate:Spicier than any others with notes of vanilla and oak. Punchy menthol that is well integrated and honeyed. Menthol and gentian finish.

Chartreuse – Cuvée des Fous de Chartreuse 2021
Nose:Less aromatic, menthol notes are attenuated towards more spiced and herbal notes like tarragon, aniseed.
Palate:The palate however, thanks to being milder, shows itself more layered and complex. Sweeter than the MOF, honeyed, spiced and finish of candied lemon.

Chartreuse – Cuvée des Fous de Chartreuse 2019
Nose:Milder nose, candied mandarin, tarragon, gentians and sage. Everything feels more integrated.
Palate:On a background of honey, menthol and gentians become more present. As sweet as the 2021. Finish of candied orange.

Chartreuse – V.E.P. (Vieillissement Exceptionnellement Prolongé) Jaune
Nose:Very aromatic and perfectly integrated. Every aroma is more precise, more expressive and in its place. The mint notes are milder, giving way to rosemary, sage and honey.
Palate:This is the Chartreuse to order. It starts with similar menthol notes, but rounder. It follows with spring honey, licorice and aniseed. The finish is incredibly long, with precise notes of gentiane.

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