Chartreuse Yellow Label (Distilled 1935)


Spirits are big business these days. We are not talking bottles you buy off supermarket shelves, but ancient bottles that might be covered in thick dust in rural bistros or perhaps lying in your grandparents’ drinks cabinet. Demand has risen exponentially as more and more connoisseurs have a newfound appreciation of their quality and rarity. Basically, the hunt is on. Cognac and Armagnac have always been coveted, even if they fell out of fashion in the Nineties. At present, there is a huge demand for Scottish single malts, with Macallan the Domaine de la Romanée Conti of the whisky world. In addition, ancient bottles of Chartreuse are now highly sought after. You can buy Yellow or Green label Chartreuse to this day that is not that expensive. Tempting as these are to drink young, you can scurry a few bottles away because they improve with time as the alcohol gradually eats the sugar.

If you cannot wait a few decades, then go and find an aged bottle from a merchant or at auction. The uninitiated will be astonished by hammer prices that can almost make Burgundy look cheap. In fact, when I was lucky enough to taste a bottle of Yellow Label Chartreuse bottled in the Forties, it was part of a forthcoming single cellar auction of rare spirits at Christie’s with an estimated hammer price of £2,000. My hunch is that it will surpass that.

Perhaps just a brief background on Chartreuse because it is an amazing story that almost reads like an Indiana Jones movie.

The origins date from 1605, when the Carthusian monks, based at their monastery near Paris, received an ancient manuscript by François Hannibal d’Estrées, marshal of the French King Henri IV’s artillery, that purportedly gave the ingredients of “Elixir of Long Life”. The manuscript found its way to La Grande Chartreuse monastery high up in the Chartreuse mountains in Grenoble, where “apothecarist” Brother Gérome Maubec set about decoding the text. He died before completing the task, so the job was finished by Brother Antoine in 1737. Apparently, the recipe contained 130 herbs and spices and a base of 71% alcohol. The mercantile Carthusian monks became distillers and produced a Green Chartreuse at 55% alcohol and, from 1838, added a milder Yellow Chartreuse at 40%. Its popularity stems from 30 military officers who tasted the Chartreuse and, perhaps carried away by its life-enhancing properties, proselytized Chartreuse to such success that it became highly demanded across the continent. All this time, the monks never gave a hint about the recipe.

In 1904, the French government, itching to profit from the sales, nationalized the monastery and distillery. The expelled monks were having none of that and sought refuge in Tarragona, Spain, where they constructed a new distillery. Back in France, chemists and botanists tried to fathom out the recipe. They failed, and the government’s own “mock” Chartreuse merely heightened demand for the real thing, especially after those wily monks prevented its exportation since they owned the foreign trademark. In 1929, local entrepreneurs bought the bankrupt company and returned the distillery to the Carthusian monks. It was destroyed in a mudslide in 1935, so the government constructed a new facility near Voiron, only lifting the expulsion orders against the monks after the war. Chartreuse continued to be distilled from Tarragona until the 1980s. In 2017, it moved from Voiron to Aiguenoire. What is truly amazing is that only two monks know part of the recipe, distillation process and aging in cask. The mixology craze in the 2000s saw a resurgence in the popularity of Chartreuse. In 2019, the Carthusian monks limited production to 1.6 million bottles per year due to concerns about its environmental impact and the need for more time to meditate. 

So, how did this 70 or 80-year-old Yellow Label Chartreuse taste? All we know is that it was distilled in 1935 and bottled at some point in the 1940s. Incidentally, this bottle had been opened a couple of months earlier, and according to our host, it tasted better as the weeks rolled past. There is no question that there is a tangible difference between modern-day Chartreuse and old bottles. Almost clear in color but with thick tears in the glass, the nose is heavenly. Star anise, wild fennel, rosemary and eucalyptus scents are exquisitely defined, alcoholic for sure but not spirituous. The palate, for me, feels slightly more viscous than young Yellow Label Chartreuse, weightier in the mouth and perfectly balanced with oregano and rosemary hints. It reminds me Calpol, the children’s medicine. What is striking is this Chartreuse's smoothness, the mellowness, appealing even to someone without a penchant for spirits like myself. There is something magical about drinking a spirit freighted with such history and enigma, but it does taste extraordinary. 98/Drink 2023-2123.

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