History of Chartreuse

History, from the Elixir to the Liqueur

A liqueur made with 130 plants, this number being the only known element of a recipe that retains all its mystery, Chartreuse has carried its fame very far : that of the Chartreuse Order which developed and perfected the recipe in its different versions but , also, that of a mountain range from which the emblematic and refined drink has borrowed its name. The Chartreuse liqueur has long been able to open up to the world, almost fitting into the register of popular "culture" in many places around the world. But, as originally and outside the period when the expelled Carthusians (Chartreuse monks) were outside France, it is in the Chartreuse mountain range that its production takes place. Very close to the Monastery of the Grande Chartreuse where the only two people who know "the" secret formula reside.
1084 - 1788 The origins of the Elixir
Notice Ancienne Elixir

Chartreuse liqueurs take their name from the Carthusian Order (Chartreuse Order), which derives its name from a place where Bruno and his seven companions decided to settle in 1084: the “désert” of Chartreuse. It was in these austere mountains that a hermitage was erected to live in solitude and in community, in prayer and contemplation, in the silence of the monastery.The Carthusian self-sufficiency motto requires them to find means of subsistence in their immediate environment: they will successively become breeders, fish farmers, exploiters of the Chartreuse forests, and even blacksmiths.

In 1084, the former dean of the Cathedral of Reims, Bruno, born in Cologne, and his six companions arrived in the Chartreuse Desert. Other monasteries following the same rule are emerging in Europe. In 1257, the Carthusian monks (les chartreux) responded to the call of the King of France, Saint Louis, and founded a monastery in Vauvert, on the edge of the capital, in the current Jardin du Luxembourg. Half a century later stands the "Chartreuse de Paris" here, surrounded by gardens and nurseries which foster the interest of monks in the art of pharmacopoeia. As part of their activities, the Carthusians rub shoulders with the doctor and theologian Arnaud de Villeneuve as well as his student Raimond Lulle, famous for their studies on medicinal plants and for having presented a new medicine: brandy, obtained after wine distillation. The monks then developed several essences of youth called eaux-de-vie, which were used for their therapeutic virtues.

It was thus that in 1605 François-Annibal d´Estrées, Marshal who had faith in their knowledge and know-how, handed over to the Carthusian monks of Paris a document whose origins remain mysterious.

This manuscript contains a list of motley plants and some indications for establishing an Elixir of "long life". In 1614, an apothecary was built in the Parisian monastery of Vauvert under the responsibility of Brother Claude Obriot, which made it possible to better work on the art of plants. Despite hard work, the monks are yet to find the perfect balance for their Elixir from the manuscript. After a stay in Paris in 1736, Dom Michel Brunier de Larnarge discovered this manuscript. When he became prior of the Grande Chartreuse and General of the Order in 1737, he asked that the manuscript be transferred to the Grande Chartreuse.

Brother Bruno and Brother André will then develop, with self-sacrifice, a new formula whose color is red. After their deaths, their successor Brother Jérôme Maubec arrived in 1755 at the final result proposing a remedy at 71° "very famous" whose process will be recorded in the manuscript, while specifying: "it must not ever leave home, the Reverend Father”. After the death of Brother Jérôme Maubec in 1762, Brother Antoine Dupuy was called upon to continue this work. He improves the method and the new color of it is now "a little greenish" with a "pungent and active" taste.

In 1764, this process and its seven successive operations were set out in a new seven-page manuscript with the explicit title: "Composition of the Elixir of Chartreuse."

This date is a founding moment.


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1789-1840 The birth of a liqueur

During its first 700 years of existence, the Order encountered many vicissitudes, setting its path to name but a few : an avalanche, eight fires and, the plague, which made many victims among the Carthusians. In the 18th century, they continued with the French Revolution, which led to years of wandering of the manuscript and political clashes, during which the Carthusians were even expelled from the Kingdom of France.

At the end of the 18th century, the “Elixir de Santé” was offered to a few discerning amateurs in the markets of Grenoble and Chambéry. Brother Charles delivers the bottles on donkeys, wedged between sacks of hay. There are also a few depositories such as Saint-Marcellin, Le Sappey, Bourgoin, La Tour-du-Pin, Voreppe, Chambéry, Crémieu, Les Échelles, Pont-de-Beauvoisin and Voiron.

This promising momentum was shattered by the political crises which erupted in 1788 with the Tile Day in Grenoble, preceding the overthrow of the French Revolution the following year. In 1790, the National Assembly promulgated the law on the civil constitution of the Clergy and the government then made an inventory of the property of the Carthusians. In 1792, the state decided to expel the monks from the Grande Chartreuse, Vauvert and all the monasteries in France. It is in this troubled context that the manuscript passes from hand to hand.

In 1800, under the consular regime, Pierre Liotard, former pharmacist of the Chartreuse, recovers it from the hands of Dom Basile Nantas, former vicar at the Chartreuse de Prémol where they met, and keeps it preciously. In 1816, by royal decree of Louis XVIII, the Carthusians were authorized to return to their devastated monastery. Under the impetus of Dom Ambroise Burdet, and thanks to his notes, they will endeavor to produce the Elixir again. Production then remains limited, with only a small still being reinstalled. The monks are also developing treatments such as toothpaste - and the "Specific" against toothache -, the steel ball or syrups.

Eight years of work lead to the "good practical recipe" written down by Dom Messy. From 1825, writings testify to the development of a new "Elixir of table or of health". This new liquor, rising to 60°, has medicinal virtues which will then help to fight against the terrible epidemic of cholera which struck France and Europe in 1832. In addition to this medicinal aspect, the monks understood that this new elixir, whose production is three hundred liters per year, can now become a real liqueur with a unique taste. In 1835, the monks finally recovered their manuscript against 3,000 francs from the widow of Pierre Liotard, allowing the final adjustments for their liqueurs.

In 1838, a lemon balm liqueur characterized by a white color was developed by Brother Bruno Jacquet. That same year, Brother Colomban Mure-Ravaux produced just before his death a completely different blend, softer with a pale yellow color. This foreshadows another novelty in 1840: the “Yellow Chartreuse”. It was in this spirit of will that Father Garnier, attorney and responsible for Liqueurs, decided, still in 1840, to call another health liqueur developed with patience by the monks: the "Green Chartreuse".

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1840-1902 Founding a brand
Marque Chartreuse

From 1840, liqueurs were marketed under the name “Chartreuse”, but the brand had not yet been registered. In 1841, the revenue for the first month was equal to that of the sales of the previous year: success was rapid. Thanks to the income generated by the sale of liquors and the now famous elixir, the monastery was able to devote itself to more charity in the years that followed. The presence of soldiers in the massif in 1848, will make the reputation of the Chartreuse: they taste it and talk about it in all the barracks! This success inevitably triggers the creation of counterfeits, forcing the Carthusians to put on their bottles and flasks the words “Liqueur sold at the Grande-Chartreuse”, accompanied by the ‘L. Garnier’ signature.

From 1840, sales became the main income of the monastery and increased tenfold the following year. Parallel to the rapid development of the “Chartreuse Verte”, the “Chartreuse Jaune” begins to find amateurs who are discovering a smoother liquor at 43 °. Visitors to the monastery, as Dom Jean de La Croix-Dufaître reminds us, are then offered “a small glass of liquor for 5 cents”. Her fame is such that she is referred to as the "Queen of Liquors". The liqueurs and the Elixir are now exported to Lyon or Bordeaux, but also to Vienna, Gap, Geneva, Marseille, Nancy, Nevers and even to Paris and Italy, although the brand has still not been officially registered. From 1848, the situation of the monks improved and sales increased thanks to a military garrison installed in Isère. After discovering the "Yellow Charterhouse" during a visit to the monastery, they advertise it. The success is such that counterfeits and lawsuits pile up. To put an end to copies, the Chartreux Fathers made special bottles and affixed labels and stamps "Liqueur made at the Grande Chartreuse" accompanied by the signature of Dom Louis Garnier. On November 20, 1852, the latter deposited the mark for the first time for the Carthusians.

In 1864, the increase in the production and trade of liqueurs - but also the desire to limit transport and avoid the risk of fires in the monastery - forced the distillery to be transferred from the monastery to Fourvoirie in the town. of Saint-Laurent-du-Pont. In addition, after years of debates and procedures, a letter from the Pope recommends that the prior of Chartreuse “move away” from the monastery “the manufacture of liquor”, in order to maintain silence, meditation and solitude. At the same time, a warehouse and shipping location is set up in Voiron. Development work on the two sites began in 1860 at the initiative of Reverend Father Dom Jean-Baptiste. In the monastery is kept the deposit of aromatic plants. At the end of the 1860s, counterfeiting did not stop and about fifteen trials took place until 1868. Dom Louis Garnier then registered the trademark in 1869. Despite this protection, the Practical Guide for the Distillator observed that the Chartreuse was , "Of all liquors, the one that has given rise to the greatest number of counterfeits". The Vatican is satisfied with the activity of the monks, because each year, since 1865, it has made it possible to meet the needs of the French Seminary in Rome but also to come to the aid of the local populations, as was the case during the terrible fire which ravaged Saint-Laurent-du-Pont in 1854, or even with the construction of a hospital in 1892 in the same town.

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1903-1950 Journeyings of the distilleries
Camion Tarragone

The beginning of the twentieth century is marked by a powerful anticlericalism which believes that the liberation of minds requires the erasure of religions. Since the French Revolution, the monastic institution has been violently attacked, and, the Carthusians, having resisted a first wave of expulsion from unauthorized congregations, the article 13 of the law of July 1, 1901 (Waldeck Rousseau) gives them a terrible blow: “no religious congregation can be formed without an authorization given by a law which will determine the conditions of its functioning”. The Carthusians will soon be expelled.

In 1902, after assuming the presidency of the Council of Émile Combes, a policy unfavorable to monastic orders was initiated in France. Visionaries, the Carthusian Fathers created a structure in Spain, La Uníon Agrícola, on December 27, 1901, and they placed three trusted lay people at its head. On April 13, 1903, a commissioner warned them that they had to leave the monastery and, a fortnight later, soldiers came to expel them, under the protests of the Dauphinoise crowd.

They then organized the withdrawal of the distillery in Tarragona, Spain, into a former spinning and weaving factory that the Order had acquired twenty years earlier. In France, the liquorist Cusenier recovers the rights to the brand, and creates the Compagnie Fermière de la Grande Chartreuse to manage the facilities. It will take years for the monks to be able to right this injustice. In Spain, the production of liquor began in 1904 and trials were increasing everywhere. But the reputation of the “Liqueur made in Tarragona by the Carthusian Fathers” and the know-how of the monks are inimitable. Little by little, the religious manage to recover the rights to their brand abroad. From 1912, sales will be increasing, after the Supreme Court of the United States banned the liquor of "the Cusenier Company" on American soil.

In 1921, the Chartreux Fathers set up their new distillery in Marseille. For a decade, they will relaunch their sales in France, and Paul Brézun, head of marketing since 1881, now has a substantial advertising budget. In addition, Chartreuse enjoys exceptional recognition by appearing in the famous novel by Francis Scott Fitzgerald, ‘The Magnificent Gatsby’ published in 1925. Faced with these successes, while the products of the Compagnie Fermière are shunned by consumers, the Compagnie Fermière goes bankrupt in 1929. The ‘Compagnie Française de la Grande Chartreuse’, managed by the monks, can finally find its property and recover its mark. But everything has to be restarted at Fourvoirie. After four years of impressive work, production resumes.

In 1935, a new tragedy struck the Chartreuse: a landslide swept away the installations of Fourvoirie. Faced with fate, everyone mobilized and production resumed a few months later in Voiron. In Spain, civil war struck the liquor in turn, and the Tarragona distillery was bombed in 1938. The same year the liquor appeared in Alfred Hitchcock's film "A Woman Disappears". The times were difficult, many tragedies struck the Charterhouse, a glimmer of hope was born with the return of the monks to the monastery in June 1940 thanks to a decree by Georges Mandel. It was not until the Liberation in 1945 that normalcy and a form of appeasement were restored. The Carthusians then decided to change the image of the liquor and the year 1950 would assert itself as one of renewal. A new label for the Chartreuse brand, a strong advertising and commercial dynamic and growth accompany this period of the « Trente Glorieuses » - the unprecedented economic expansion that France, like the other major industrial countries, experienced from the aftermath of the Second World War until 1973 oil shock.

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1951-1982 The creation of a new identity

Advertising and Marketing
From now on, advertising is rethought, the name becomes in 1951 “La Chartreuse”, and the signature of the brand asserts itself in the four corners of France and abroad on a multitude of supports, such as blotters, objects of restoration or in increasingly original press campaigns. The design of the bottles is also renewed, we use the embossed marking as it was done before 1880. We also use the label of Dom Louis Garnier deposited in 1869. By these actions, we want to restore the bottles of Chartreuse liqueur their original identity.

With the ‘Trente Glorieuses’, the reconstruction of France inaugurated a period of quiet growth for liqueurs. In 1951, the word "Chartreuse" is affixed, alone, on the labels. The design of the bottles is renewed, we use the embossed marking. At the end of the 1950s, large-scale advertising campaigns were launched; Charles Lemmel's drawings were gradually replaced by photographic montages. At the same time, the first radio commercials made hear songs of birds and whispers evoking the silence of the life of the monks, while in the cinema, fields of flowers are shown ... Carthusian monks and the monastery give way at the bottle of liqueur, at the Chartreuse massif and at drinking scenes. At the same time production is maintained in Tarragona. The Chartreuse craze is at its peak and sales are on the rise in the United States.

To mark this period, the “Chartreuse V.E.P." (with Exceptionally Prolonged Ageing) was created in 1963. The legendary V.E.P. liqueur has the particularity of having rested in demi-muids, smaller than vats. Each bottle is then numbered with its bottling vintage.

In 1966, the Voiron cellars expansion project will respond to this growth. It was also the time when the liqueur was associated with great events, such as the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II (1953) or the Olympic Winter Games in Grenoble (1968). The Chartreuse also had its own advertising caravan during the Critérium cycliste du Dauphiné Libéré until the end of the 1970s. Fame settled and consumers around the world wanted to discover "the longest liquor cellar in the world" out of one hundred and sixty-four meters !

In the years 1970-1980, with the slogan "Osez le verre vert !" (Dare to use green glass !"), Chartreuse is expanding its range under the leadership of Chartreuse Diffusion, a structure created in 1970 for sales and advertising. The liqueur is then available in "Chartreuse Orange", "Chartreuse Myrtille" - or even the ephemeral "Chartreuse Framboise". A special edition was created in 1976 for the bicentennial of the United States, even though the "Swampwater" cocktail, made from pineapple juice and "Green Chartreuse", enjoyed incredible success across the Atlantic. But this beautiful story came to an abrupt end, forcing the brand to adapt to a world undergoing profound change from 1982.

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1983-2010 At the crossroads
Cocktails Chartreuse

Decline in popularity
Now an international liquor, the bad news is coming from the United States. The crisis hit liquor sales, and these collapsed across the Atlantic in 1983. A period of declining sales followed, also due to the liquor’s declining popularity. The French and European markets are also affected. As in 1789, as in 1903, as in 1935, the Carthusians will raise their heads and rely on the quality of their recipes and their liqueurs.

At the start of the 1980s, Chartreuse liqueurs suffered a major crisis. "Swampwater", a popular cocktail in the United States, is no longer in fashion. The cocktail world and consumers are setting new codes. In 1983, sales of "Chartreuse Verte" collapsed, successive increases in taxes and regulations on alcoholic beverages considerably weakened the French market. The shock is brutal! The Carthusians no longer have any advertising resources, but they have time with them. They take it and manage, in two decades, to raise the brand, based on a new exclusive sales team, a new clientele, new slogans... The brand is known, but the taste much less. They decide to make (re) discover and taste their liqueurs. They are now based on the trend for regional and authentic products. They thus developed new formulas like the ‘Génépi des Pères Chartreux’, a real mountain drink, created in 1984, and the 9th Centenary liqueur, the same year, which commemorates the arrival of Saint Bruno in 1084.

New communication will support this profound change in the brand's identity, now focusing its message on the region, tradition, nature and the place of manufacture in the heart of the French Alps. In the mid-1990s, sales started to rise again in France and foreign markets were approached in a specific way one by one.

As part of this renewal and change, the Carthusians repatriated to France and marketed a large stock of old bottles that remained at the Tarragona distillery, which had just closed (1989). An Episcopal edition (a blend of one third of Green and two thirds of Yellow) is created to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the official return of the Carthusians to France (1990). Despite the closure of the legendary Tarragona distillery, Spain remains deeply attached to the liqueur. An exhibition was even organized in 1994, in homage to Chartreuse, which had become the official drink of the Santa Tecla celebrations. With the passage of the year 2000, "Chartreuse Verte" and "Chartreuse Jaune" liqueurs, such as the Elixir and the special series, are back in the collective imagination of spirits.

The bet is about to be won. In 1999 a one liter Episcopal was launched and, in 2003, as an exercise in style, a 35 cl chrome Episcopal became a must for collectors. In the 21st century, the Chartreuse is one of the major elements of the cocktail world in the four corners of the world and it is on the menu of the greatest tables. In 2008, the "Cuvée des Meilleurs Ouvriers de France" was born, still made by the Carthusian Fathers in the greatest secrecy, but in collaboration with the Meilleur Ouvriers de France Sommeliers.

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Since 2010 Horizon 2050

Since 1084, the Carthusian monks have ensured their own subsistence according to their ideal: “Survive without ever reaching out”. During their 900 years of existence, they have learned resilience in order to adapt and preserve their know-how: time goes by, the Chartreuse remains.

The national and international success of Chartreuse is well established, more than two hundred and fifty years after the creation of its Élixir. Already present in the world of gastronomy and in the cocktail world, Chartreuse has become a myth in popular culture. After the American director Quentin Tarantino, after Bruce Springsteen who talks about it in his biography, Amélie Nothomb in his books, Franck Zappa in his songs and Tom Waits who evokes it, the legendary rock group ZZ Top publishes a tribute song in 2012 with the evocative title: ‘Chartreuse’ - pronounced "Chartrousssse" in the Texan way - after having rediscovered the liqueur at the beginning of the decade during the Musilac festival in Aix-les-Bains.

For several years, new editions of the liqueur have been created, such as the limited series "Vertes et Or" reserved only for the city of Voiron in 2015 on the occasion of the Chartreuse celebrations and in homage to the city which hosted the distillery eighty years earlier; but also a special edition created in 2017, a blend of Yellow and Green used to make the official drink for the festivals of Tarragona, symbol of a long century of relationship between the liquor and the capital of Catalonia. In 2015, an exceptional cuvée produced in only two hundred and forty copies: "the Chartreuse" and renewed each year on the principle of a Solera - or perpetual reserve - was born. In 2019, it is the turn of the liqueur from "Foudre 147", which still ages in the Voiron cellar, sold exclusively in the Chartreuse boutique in Voiron. Finally, in 2021, the confidential return of the Carthusians to France as distillers a century earlier is celebrated with a limited series: “Marseille 1921-2021. "

In order to meet the expectations of this new millennium, the Chartreuse inaugurated the Aiguenoire distillery on August 30, 2018. This choice is not insignificant since this land was a place of obedience to the Carthusians from 1618 where they owned a mill and a barn, land which was taken from them during the French Revolution (1790). Located in the heart of the Chartreuse massif, it is a true homecoming for the monks. To make this multiple identity of the liqueur visible, a series of films of several episodes entitled ‘Seasons’ has been offering, since 2017, to discover the multiple facets of Chartreuse. This web-series addresses different themes, including know-how, tradition, history, the bar world, gastronomy and the festive spirit of liqueur. From now on, the future of the liqueur is put into perspective by the ‘Grand Avenir’ project (2015): to anticipate the future, by fitting fully into the present and remaining faithful to the legacies of the past. In 2022, the Caves de la Chartreuse site in Voiron will become the place of culture and history of the Chartreuse.

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And many more
adventures to come !
Photo credits page history : Banner : © Pascal Flamant / Origin of the Élixir : © Chartreuse Diffusion / Birth of a liqueur : © Stéphane Couchet / Foundation of a brand : © Chartreuse Diffusion / The journey of the destilleries : © Chartreuse Diffusion / Creation of a new identity : © Chartreuse Diffusion / At the crossroads : © Pascal Flamant / Horizon 2050 : © Chartreuse Diffusion