A fiercely guarded recipe, a turbulent history, and qualities that have seduced men for ages—the story of the famous Chartreuse liqueur is as fascinating as a tour of its cave cellar that lies hidden in a small commune in southeastern France. By Satarupa Paul
There’s nothing particularly remarkable about the town of Voiron in the southeast of France. Except for the little fact that it is home to the longest liqueur cellar in the world. Since its conception in 1936, the Cave de la Chartreuse has aged over 24 million litres of the coveted eponymous liqueur in its dark, underground cellar. But the story of Chartreuse begins much earlier and plays out like a long, turbulent fable.
The charm of its history and the desire to taste the liqueur at its home made me board a train at the beautiful, medieval city of Grenoble on an autumn afternoon. Half an hour later, I found myself on the deserted platform of Voiron. It was Sunday, and the manufacturing town was eerily quiet. I decided to walk towards my destination with the aid of phone maps. Shops and cafes stood shuttered down, shopping complexes and gas stations lay vacant, and no homely sounds wafted out of the windows of the houses. If it wasn’t for the occasional car that zipped by, Voiron could well have been the setting for a dystopian film.
Just when doubts started clouding my mind, familiar green banners proclaiming ‘Chartreuse’ in bold, white letters appeared—outside an old, whitewashed building. Inside, in the minimally-designed lobby, two young women handed out pamphlets to the museum and cave cellar. An airy store with tempting displays of the liqueur occupied one side of the lobby, a tasting room the other. Earmarking them for later, I climbed the winding wooden staircase to the first floor. While I waited for the next scheduled tour to start, I joined the motley crowd of connoisseurs, history buffs, and liqueur enthusiasts in a guessing game.
A number of unlabelled spices and herbs were kept bottled in neat rows along the walls of the narrow hallway. Visitors were invited to touch and smell them, and venture a guess about their identity. Several were familiar kitchen staples such as black peppercorn, clove, and bayleaf; a few, however, were unknown entities to me. “These are just a handful of the 130 herbs that go into the making of Chartreuse,” our guide announced, signalling the beginning of the tour. “Where are the rest?” a tourist asked. “Under heavy lock and key,” came the reply.
It was in the year 1084 that Saint Bruno of Cologne founded the Carthusian Order, a Catholic religious order of enclosed monastics. The name of the Order derived from the Chartreuse Mountains—located in the French Prealps not far from Voiron—where Saint Bruno built his first hermitage. In 1605, the monks of a Chartreuse monastery in Vauvert, a small suburb of Paris, received a gift from the marshal of King Henry IV’s artillery. The gift was an ancient manuscript, possibly the work of a 16th-century alchemist, with instructions to blend, infuse, and macerate 130 herbs into a perfectly balanced tonic. However, the recipe was so complex that only bits of it could be deciphered at Vauvert.
Early in the 18th century, the manuscript was sent to the Mother House of the Order—La Grande Chartreuse, a monastery that presently stands deep in the Chartreuse Mountains. Here, an exhaustive study of the manuscript was undertaken, and finally, in 1737, the monastery’s apothecary unravelled the mystery to what would come to be called the ‘elixir of long life.’ Till today, it’s made only by the Chartreuse monks, who follow the ancient recipe; the product is called Elixir Vegetal de la Grande Chartreuse (69 per cent alcohol, 138 proof).
Initially, the production and sale of this elixir was limited to medicinal purposes. However, it tasted so good that it soon began to be used as a beverage. Recognising this, the monks adapted the elixir recipe into a milder beverage, which is now known the world over as Green Chartreuse (55 per cent alcohol, 110 proof). The success of the liqueur was immediate, and its fame spread far and wide.
Then came the French revolution of 1789. Members of all religious orders were ordered out of the country. The Chartreuse monks fled France in 1793, but one stayed behind and kept a copy of the manuscript.
The original was in the custody of another monk, who was arrested and imprisoned in Bordeaux. He managed to pass the manuscript on to a friend, who—unable to make the elixir himself—sold the recipe to a pharmacist in Grenoble. The pharmacist never managed to produce it either; when he died, his heir returned the manuscript to the Chartreuse monks who had come back to the monastery in 1816.
In 1903, the French government nationalised the Chartreuse distillery, and the monks were expelled once again. They headed to Spain this time, where they built a new distillery in Tarragona. Meanwhile, the French government sold the trademark ‘Chartreuse’ to a group of distillers, who went bankrupt soon after. The shares were brought by friends of the monks and offered to them. Thus, the monks regained ownership of the trademark, and on their return, set up a distillery at Fourvoirie, not too far from the Chartreuse monastery.
But fate had other plans—Fourvoirie was nearly destroyed by a landslide in 1935, and the manufacturing of the elixir was transferred to Voiron, where it stands till date. The recipe remains fiercely guarded, and only two monks are privy to it at any given time. The ingredients are selected, crushed, and mixed by these two monks at the Chartreuse monastery and then sent to Voiron, where they are first left to macerate in carefully selected alcohol and then distilled. Finally, the liqueur is aged for several years in massive oak casks and placed in the underground cave cellar for maturation.
Our guide took us through this fascinating history with photo exhibits and a short film in two rooms of the museum. A third room held displays and installations of the monks at work. Miniature macarons laced with the elixir were presented to us here for a preliminary tasting. Interestingly, we were asked to switch off our phones and cameras before heading down a flight of stairs to the main attraction—the cave cellar. A seemingly unending cavernous room stretched out in either direction, its stone walls disappearing into the darkness beyond. A small portion of the cellar was lit for the tour. The guide walked us down rows of barrels, which were twice the size of your average water-tank. These 200-odd oak casks produce 8,500 hectolitres of liqueur each year, which is exported to over 50 countries.
In the last and most anticipated leg of the tour, we were ushered into the tasting room and handed out shot glasses. The only liqueur in the world with a completely natural green colour, the Green Chartreuse is the most famous variant. Powerful and unique, it’s sweet at first taste, swiftly becoming spicy and pungent as it slithers down your tongue. Usually enjoyed as an after-dinner drink, it’s consumed cold. A milder version with 40 per cent alcohol is the Yellow Chartreuse, first produced in 1838 and enjoyed neat or in a long drink.
After an indulgent tasting, I spent a long time at the store, selecting the rightly-aged Green Chartreuse to bring home. With the bottles tucked in my bag, a buzz in my veins, and an inebriating aroma lingering in the air, I stepped out, onto the empty streets of Voiron again. The walk back to the station was a pleasant one this time.
You can board any of the hourly intercity trains from either Grenoble (30 mins) or Lyon (1 hour 15 mins) to Voiron.
There’s not much else to see or do in the manufacturing town of Voiron, so it’s advisable to base yourself in the historic city of Lyon or in the student town of Grenoble at the foot of the French Alps.
The tour is conducted every day in French, with English translations available on request. A guided tour in English is also organised every day at 12 noon in the months of June, July, and August. Timings: 10 am to 6.30 pm; last entry at 5.15 pm. The French tour is free, and the English tour costs `1,220 per person; (chartreuse.fr).