Chartreuse: modern day alchemy
Chartreuse embodies a particular mystique for many, and with good reason. The centuries' old liqueur is unique - produced by monks in the French Alps from a recipe dating back to the 1600's that has remained a well kept secret.
I had the opportunity to visit in the summer of 2013, when my sister's wedding took place in the Rhone Valley. She met a man who'd grown up in Grenoble, so naturally, a visit to the world famous monastery was necessary.
At the time, I was not aware of the reputation this elixir held worldwide - a perplexing recipe of herbs and flowers was gifted to the monks in 1605, who at the time, were revered as alchemists, known for their ability to cure ailments with their potions.
Upon entering the grounds, a mysterious energy overtook me. While tourists are not permitted entry to the monastery itself, they are encouraged to enjoy a hike that gives an unadulterated view of the grounds from its peak. I found I was not able to tear my eyes away from the various windows and balconies throughout the property. I desperately wanted to see a monk in the flesh, but all that met my gaze were deserted courtyards.
After that, it was as though Chartreuse was everywhere - akin to buying a new car, and suddenly it's the only model you see on the road. It was in the hands of all the most respected sommeliers, chefs and bartenders.
My brother in law had grown up with the stuff - so there was always a bottle around. Soon, we found ourselves replacing Jägermeister with "Chartreuse bombs" before heading out for a night on the town. Chartreuse had become a part of my world, carving out a special place of sentimental fervour.
Years later, I was invited by Mark Coster of Noble Estates to attend a Charteuse tasting. I wasn't aware I'd have the opportunity to meet a representative from the company, and was delighted upon meeting Philippe Rochez, export director for Chartreuse.
With a brother in law hailing from France, I'd come to appreciate the quirks of the French - stoic and proud, with just the right amount of sarcasm. I shamelessly cornered Philippe and grilled him with all my burning questions of Chartreuse and the men behind the iconic label.
After our interview, you can view the cocktail recipe pictured above.
LM: How did you become involved working with Chartreuse?
PR: In 1988, I was doing a summer job for the company. I spoke Italian, and they were looking for someone who was fluent in the language. I was eventually in contact with the CEO at the time, and he offered me the job for 6 months, which became 12, then 2 years in Italy. He decided to send me back to the head office where I joined the export department.
LM: How long was it before you saw inside the monastery?
PR: Working with the monks, you have to understand the way you can communicate with them. You cannot ask for permission to enter. You are invited. For a long period, I had been working with them, and after around 10 years, was when I was finally invited.
LM: What was it like?
PR: It was very unique - you are going somewhere not many people are permitted. They're located in the alps, in the Chartreuse mountains. They devote their lives to prayer - they are contemplatives. The order was founded in 1084 by St. Bruno. Since then, it's considered one of the oldest Catholic orders in existence today. Special rules exist.
The community is comprised of Fathers and Brothers. The Fathers are more reclusive in the monastic life - living in a cell, devoting their life to prayer and solitude. The Brothers are more linked with the logistical aspects of the monastery - carpentry, working in the field, doing specific things for the needs of the monastery.
It's one of the religious orders still existing today and they are a community of 22 monasteries around the world. The headquarters is in the Chartreuse mountains, not far from Lyon. We are the basically the head office. There are locations in the US, Brazil, South Korea.
LM: What are the monks like? What are they like to interact with?
PR: They're no different than you and I - they have decided to devote their life to certain prayers. They've been called by God to live this contemplative life. Before this, they all had "normal lives". They have an interview with a Father, who is in charge of the monks, who ensures you have the right motivation - the principles you hold in your mind - the way you think and see things. The monks consider a good age to join to be after 35 years of age - for them it's an age where you have "lived your life" where you have enough experience to go through various challenges and have faced adversity. As long as you enter as a monk, you choose if you want to be a Father (priest) or Brother, you decide this at the beginning, and you're free to leave whenever you want. There is no contract or engagement where you say that you'll stay for your entire life. You're free as a human being to come and go.
LM: Do most people stay for the duration of their lives?
PR: Some of them leave. It's a long period of time and various "levels" to go through. There are different stages you need to go through to become a monk, requiring plenty of study, amounting to 7 years total.
LM: Are they entirely self sustaining?
PR: Chartreuse is just one source of income, but it is not enough to support the entire community. Chartreuse is enough to support 5 monasteries. The rest find other sources of income. They also rely on donations, and own various pieces of real estate.
LM: What makes Chartreuse so special?
PR: The recipe was given to them in 1605 at a time when the Carthusian monks were considered expert alchemists with the know how on remedies and how to cure people with plants and flowers. For many centuries they were always collecting these things. That's why this secret manuscript was given to them, because they were able to do something with it. It took a long period of time to produce the first version. The way they're producing the liqueur is because of their know how, in combining specific ingredients, in complete secret while overseeing the quality. Even the distillation process is a secret and I don't see this changing any time in the future.
LM: Would you say it's a hallmark of the area?
PR: Not necessarily. What's been most crucial for recognition is the wave of mixology - used by professional mixologists for its complexity, uniqueness and flavour. The community of professionals around the world know exactly what it's about. So for them, it's special, which comes with a loyalty of the brand. Today we are having beautiful results, despite our size. We are producing 1.5 million bottles a year which is small in comparison to other spirit companies.
LM: Can you share some of your favourite food pairings?
PR: In the winter, we encourage people to enjoy chartreuse with hot chocolate - it's a great combination with the complexity of the green chartreuse especially, and very easy to make, with just a spoonful.
Pastry chefs like to use it for different desserts too like tiramisu or soufflé.
Thank you Philippe for taking the time to speak with me. You can find out more about Chartreuse here.
1.5 ounces gin - Hendricks or Sipsmith recommended
0.25 ounces Green Chartreuse
0.5 ounces lime simple syrup (natural)
2 ounces butterfly pea tea
1/2 egg white or vegan alternative (chick pea liquid)
1-2 dashes Grapefruit or lemon bitters
0.5 ounces Lemon juice
Shake with ice and strain.
Garnish with lemon and crushed tea leaves.
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