Worlds Inside of Worlds
I've been lucky in my time here at K&L to have some pretty amazing collectors as customers. When I say "amazing," I'm referring both to their collections and to their generosity in sharing those exploits with me personally. While I'm sure you're all immediately thinking wine and whiskey, it's actually the lesser-known stuff that draws in the most passionate devotees. Sure, the whiskey guys are willing to jump through serious hoops to get their fix, but that dedication pales in comparison to the things I've seen in other alcoholic areas. It's always the sub-genres, the worlds inside of worlds, that get the geekiest.
An example? Chartreuse.
One of our best customers here at K&L happens to be one of the world's great collectors of old Chartreuse, and I was texting him photos from Burgundy this past week because I ended up getting invited to a private club that had a gigantic collection of old bottles to taste. Sitting there with that glass in my hand, a 1970's era Tarragona edition, tasting what was without a doubt one of the most complex and crazy spirits I've ever had, made me think about all the rabbit holes you can end up getting pulled into with drinking. If you think I'm talking about a forty-something year old bottle of a simple old sweet liqueur, there's a bit more to Chartreuse you might want to know about. I'll give you the five minute explanation below.
When you go to a fine spirits shop like K&L or a reasonably fancy bar, you'll probably see two bottles that say Chartreuse in the liqueur sections: a green one and a yellow one. But if you look a bit higher on the shelf (like in the jewel rack in Redwood City), you'll see two wooden boxes that also carry the name. These two Chartreuse expressions are also distinguished by their green and yellow color, but they're referred to as VEP: Vieillissement Exceptionnellement Prolongé. While I'm sure many of you have heard the old stories and probably thought it was just marketing baloney, the truth is that both of these spirits are still made by the order of Chartreuse monks who have guarded and produced the recipe for centuries. What are these versions of Chartreuse, you ask? Most likely not what's in your Last Word cocktail. The VEP Verte is a high-proof maceration made with a special recipe of 130 different herbs and plants that was formulated from a manuscript dating back to the early 1600s. It's aged in gigantic oak vats and clocks in at a whopping 54%. Only two monks at any given time know the recipe and can create the blend of botanicals. While the preparation of the blend is a heavily-guarded secret, you can actually visit the historic cellars located in between Lyon and Grenoble going towards the Swiss border (I've never been there, but it's on my list). While all that may sound romantic and mysterious already, here's where it gets really interesting (and geeky).
The original Chartreuse recipe is known as Elixir Vegetal de la Grande-Chartreuse and it's a 69% ABV absinthe-like tonic that was originally created in 1737 to promote health and long life. The monks adapted that recipe in 1764 to a milder 110 proof expression that we know today as the VEP Verte. It was immediately a huge success and the monks began to peddle the liquid to neighboring towns and villages. But, as you probably know, France was a tumultuous place during that era. When the French Revolution broke out in 1789, the monks were eventually forced to flee due to religious persecution. The recipe would get tossed around for the next twenty years, but it found its way back to the monks who were able to return in 1816 and begin production once again. They would release the first Yellow Chartreuse twenty-two years after that.
Now fast forward to the early 20th century. France decides to nationalize the Chartreuse distillery and the monks get kicked out once again. They head to Spain this time and build a new distillery in Tarragona. Twenty years after that they would return home and build a second distillery in Marseille. The new liqueurs are referred to as Une Tarragone and Tarragone as the French government holds the trademark to the name Chartreuse. That trademark is eventually sold to a company that winds up bankrupt in 1929. The trademark is repurchased by the monks and production is moved back to the distillery near the monastery in the town of Fourvoirie. If you're a true spirits geek, you can probably see where I'm going here (HINT: it means there are historic rare editions of Chartreuse out there made from "lost" or closed distilleries). All goes well for a few years, until the distillery is almost decimated by a landslide, which forces the monks to move production again to Voiron where it remains today. If you're reading very closely (which I'm sure you are), you'll probably notice no mention of the monks having closed their Terragona location in Spain. That's because it remained in operation until 1989. So let's recap:
Chartreuse is made at....
• 1737 - 1860 at the monestary
• 1860 - 1903 at Fourvoire, then again from 1930-1935
• 1903 - 1989 at Tarragona, Spain
• 1921 - 1929 at Marseille
• 1935 - Present day at Voiron
Now had I written this post ten years ago, I know what you'd be thinking: "There's no way these old bottles of Chartreuse from all these different distilleries can be kicking around still." But we live in the modern age of dusty hunting, auction houses, and extreme collecting. So, that being said, if you can still find bottles of Bourbon from the early 1900s, you can sure as hell bet there's a bunch of old Chartreuse still sitting in many a cellar. One such place? The private club I was drinking at in Burgundy this past week. I sat there in the lounge with a bunch of French guys smoking cigars, sipping on a glass of 1970s-era Tarragona and marveling at the complexity. The even crazier part about old Chatreuse is that it does age in the bottle. The herbs change, the sugar fades, and the spirit takes on a wild and savory component. Just for shits and giggles I did a little research into the European black market and found a few bottles for sale from a broker (the same guy who sold them to the club). You're looking at roughly $800-$1000 a bottle for what I was drinking. It's worth it, in my opinion. I've never tasted anything like what was in the glass and I'm itching now to try it again.
We've been drinking alcohol for many centuries at this point as a civilization. There are many stories out there still unknown to the general public, but they're waiting to be read and told if you're interested. It's just a matter of how deep you want to go. How many sub-worlds can your mind make room for within the great world of booze?