Spirits Feature

Aged Chartreuse

Twenty years ago, Paul Einbund discovered Chartreuse the same way most people did back then: He pointed at a dusty bottle sitting lonely on a high bar shelf and asked, “What’s that?” The answer: A sour face and “Ick, Chartreuse. Stay away!”

Paul Einbund Paul Einbund
But a couple years later, when he’d become a sommelier, a representative of the Chartreuse distillery in France offered a taste of Chartreuse “VEP,” which stands for Vieillissement Exceptionnellement Prolongé, or “exceptionally long-aged” in old oak casks. “I never had a singular moment of revelation with wine,” he says. “But I had it with Chartreuse. It was simply one of the most magical things I’d ever tasted.”

Einbund (who, full disclosure, is a friend and neighbor) opened his first restaurant in San Francisco at the end of August. Named for his late father, The Morris is unabashedly a sommelier’s restaurant, featuring a robust wine program filled with gems Einbund has been collecting for years, as well as highly refined bar, coffee and tea programs. But the centerpiece is his Chartreuse collection, lovingly amassed over the last 15 years.

For the uninitiated, Chartreuse is a liqueur that the French Carthusian monks began making in Fourvoirie, in the French Alps, in 1737. The recipe came from an already ancient formula for an “elixir of long life” given to them in 1605 (the intervening 132 years were evidently spent deciphering the knotty instructions). Still in production (now sold in small bottles with a shaker top), the Elixir Végétal is made from 130 different roots, barks, flowers, herbs and plants. More popular today, however, is the more palatable green Chartreuse they began to produce in 1764.

Still distilled at the monastery in Voiron, the secret formula is known to only three monks, two of whom prepare separate elements of the formula.
It’s been a stormy path for the liqueur since then. In 1793, the monks were forced to flee during the French Revolution, and production was held up until 1816. Once up and running again, they worked out a formula for a sweeter, less potent and less complex yellow version, which they introduced in 1838, as well as a white, but in 1903, they were once again forced out under the government’s move to “nationalize” religious properties. The monks took their formula to Tarragona, where they produced the spirit under the label Liqueur fabriquée à Tarragone par les Pères Chartreux, but it never seemed to regain its mass popularity.

After they moved back to their French monastery in 1929, the distillery was totaled by a mudslide in 1935. The monks rebuilt in nearby Voiron, but Chartreuse largely remained that obscure, neglected bottle sitting in the corner of the bar until the cocktail revolution of the 2000s.

Today, bartenders are drawn to Chartreuse in part for its mystery: Still distilled at the monastery in Voiron, the secret formula is known to only three monks, two of whom prepare separate elements of the formula. But the renewed interest is also due to the spirit’s complexity, versatility and captivating flavor—elements that become only more fascinating as the liqueur evolves in bottle.

“I never had a singular moment of revelation with wine... But I had it with Chartreuse. It was simply one of the most magical things I’d ever tasted.”
—Paul Einbund
This is what attracts collectors like Einbund: the old vintages; the highly desirable, exceedingly rare Tarragona bottlings; and the seemingly endless stream of new products—fascinating variations released without even the slightest announcement or attribution. “I love that every time I take a trip to Europe, I find something that I didn’t even know existed,” Einbund says. Whether popping up in a fancy Parisian wine shop or in a grocery in Barcelona, each unique bottling offers a new perspective, a new expression of the work of these quiet, mysterious monks.

As Einbund was working on opening The Morris, I joined him to taste through a few of his more obscure treasures—all of which he’ll offer at the restaurant. There’s the odd Eau de Vie Chartreuse, a brown spirit made from a Chartreuse distillate and aged in whiskey barrels; it has the spirit’s characteristic herbal flavors, but bizarrely overlays them with the familiar flavors of whiskey barrel aging. There’s a Santa Tecla bottling Einbund uncovered on a trip to Spain—evidently still made by the monks for the Santa Tecla festival in Tarragona. (“Theoretically this is made in the Tarragonian style,” says Einbund. “What does that mean? F**k if I know! No one wants to tell you. My guess is that the difference in the Tarragonian water and spices created a spirit that was richer, rounder and softer.”) In the glass, its color lies somewhere between green and yellow, and the taste follows, strong and herbal with a powerful pull of alcohol. We taste the Liqueur du 9° Centenaire, created in 1984 to commemorate the 900th anniversary of the order’s founding, and the strange 2003 Episcopal, a blend of one-third green and two-thirds yellow Chartreuse in a blingy silver half bottle. All have the warm, bitter, densely layered and inimitable taste of Chartreuse, yet all are different expressions, some punchier, others more herbal, others favoring spice.

The Morris joins only a handful of American bars with serious Chartreuse collections. The Office, the private, invitation-only bar beneath Chicago’s Aviary is known for an impressive array of older bottles, as is Pouring Ribbons in Manhattan. At Canon in Seattle, a pour of ultra-rare yellow Tarragona circa 1935 will set you back $550.

If you’re reluctant to fork over a few C-notes for a taste of aged Chartreuse, time is on your side. One of the most captivating bottles I tasted with Einbund was a yellow Chartreuse aged 40 years (current releases sell for $55). It was beautiful, with a constellation of dense, rich spices that had turned warmer and richer with age. Find that dusty bottle forgotten on some store’s back shelf, and you may have a bottle with some age. In fact, there’s a way to date Chartreuse bottlings of the last 25 years, says Tim Master, Chartreuse specialist for the importer Frederick Wildman. “Since the early 1990s, a six-digit code has been printed on each bottle’s neck label,” he explains. “If you add 1084 (the date of the order’s founding) to the first three digits, you get the year it was bottled.” Thus the code from this year’s bottles begins with 932. “Always check out shops that look like they don’t sell much Chartreuse,” he says. “I’ve found several fifteen-year-old bottles,” and he found them for half the price of a new release. The thrill of the hunt for rare Chartreuse doesn’t require a trip to France or Spain; it could begin in your own backyard.

photos by Alison Christiana Photography

This feature appears in the print edition of October 2016.
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