Chartreuse is another monk’s digestif – with 130 secret herbs and a rakish reputation for its strength.
I was introduced to the joys of Green Chartreuse by a louche uncle. About 10 years ago, he took me for lunch at his club in St James. Lunch for him meant lunch in the old-fashioned sense: ie mainly liquid, so the last thing we needed at the end of the meal was a 55% liqueur.
Whereas many drinks made by monks are only incidentally monastic, Chartreuse has a special significance for Roman Catholics. The Carthusian monks who had been making it near Grenoble since the 18th century were expelled from Third Republic France during one of its periodic bouts of anti-clericism. They then relocated to Tarragona in Spain and carried on distilling. But their former works in France were bought and a faux-Chartreuse was created and sold under the good name.
The pre-expulsion stuff was much prized. There is a Berry Bros price list from 1909 that guarantees Chartreuse “made by the Chartreuse monks at their Monastery previous to their expulsion from France”. The importance of the real thing crops up in Evelyn Waugh’s hymn to Anglo-Catholicism, Brideshead Revisited. Anthony Blanche extols its virtues with his affected stammer: “Real g-g-Green Chartreuse, made before the expulsion of the monks. There are five distinct tastes as it trickles over the tongue. It’s like swallowing a sp-spectrum.” This is as good a way of describing its unique flavour as any. It is a very complex drink: sweet but well-balanced so it never becomes cloying; herbal, spicy and fiery. Apparently, unlike most liqueurs, it changes and improves in bottle. In the 1920s the monks moved back to Grenoble where the drink is still made to this day. There’s also a Yellow Chartreuse which is sweeter and weaker.
As a staunch Roman Catholic my uncle was no doubt aware of his favourite digestif’s history, though he may just have drunk it for its strength. Ostensibly he was a respectable, recently retired lawyer but there was a recklessness about him. He paid his way through law school by playing poker. Later he gave up law entirely, moved to Las Vegas and became a professional gambler.
Green Chartreuse too has its wild side. Hunter S Thompson was a fan. There’s a song by Tom Waits, When the Money Runs Out, containing the line: “With a pint of Green Chartreuse ain’t nothin’ seems right.”
That lunch was the first of many boozy meals together. After a couple of glasses of the green stuff, my Uncle told me an anecdote which ended with the lines ‘then I threw a stool at the Belgian Ambassador’s chauffeur. I was later found asleep on the mantelpiece’. A bright gleam came into his eye as he told the story and I half expected him to suggest a trip to an illegal gambling den. Instead the gleam faded, he sighed wearily and asked me to hail him a cab.
- Henry Jeffreys is a drinks writer based in London. His first book, Empire of Booze, will be published by Unbound in 2016. Twitter: @henrygjeffreys