I’d heard of Chartreuse de Tarragona when I was still living and working in London, but it was only once I’d moved to Barcelona in 2013 that I had the opportunity to discover the story behind this enigmatic liquor in the very place where it was once made all those years ago – Tarragona. At Caskadia we are better known for our passion for terroir and biodynamic wines, but we also cannot help but be fascinated by the uniqueness of Chartreuse de Tarragona, and so whenever there is a special occasion and our palates are craving something a little different, this is what we turn to!
Made in Tarragona by Carthusian monks from 1903 to 1989, Chartreuse de Tarragona is one of the world’s most complex herbal liquors and boasts a bouquet of more than 130 plants, many of them with healing and therapeutic properties. Tracing its history back into the murky depths of time leads us to 1605, when the Carthusians of Paris were entrusted with a manuscript containing a formula for an elixir. This complex ‘recipe’ was studied well into the next century, and it was not until 1764, at the General Prior of La Grande Chartreuse monastery, that a first preparation formula was officially written down. This breakthrough was thanks to two master apothecaries of the time: Brother Jérôme Maubec and Brother Antoine, whose work allowed the monks to manufacture what they named the ‘Elixir Végétal de la Grande Chartreuse’, and which they sold in the nearby market towns of Grenoble and Chambéry as a medicine. The elixir, however, soon branched out from its strictly “medicinal” role as it became popular with the locals as a drink in its own right.
After the French revolution in the late 1700s, the monks left France due to the government’s decision to nationalise the distillery, such was its growing reputation. But the government never successfully replicated the recipe, and their attempts to replicate the monks’ magic formula failed. It wasn’t until the early 1900s, after several decades of interruption, that the monks settled in Tarragona and began to produce their elixir again. The name Chartreuse de Tarragona was born. In the years that followed the industrious monks concocted new versions such as the Green label Chartreuse and the sweeter, milder Yellow label.
Each sub-period of Chartreuse de Tarragona is recognisable by the labels and bottle characteristics. Whereas Chartreuse is still made by monks today in the town of Voiron, near the Grande Chartreuse monastery they returned to after their exile, the last sub-period for the production of Chartreuse de Tarragona was 1987-1989. The distillation and ageing methods remain shrouded in mystery to this day, making the whole thing all the more fascinating. Many herbal liqueur imitations have appeared over the years but none are as complex and capable of maturing as well (as wine does) in the bottle. This is perhaps the most unique quality of Chartreuse de Tarragona: its ability to develop over time and gain in complexity.
Owing to its high alcohol content (40%-55% abv), Chartreuse de Tarragona is best enjoyed as a digestif, and the range of intense aromas and flavours are most effective when it is slightly chilled. At Caskadia we have been known to get our hands on bottles dating all the way back to the 1950s, which from this period have cork closures rather than screw caps. These are true collector’s items, reaching cult-like status around the world. Of course, these gems are becoming more and more difficult to get hold of as the years go by after the distillery’s closure in 1989. If you would like to enquire about our current availability of Chartreuse de Tarragona, then please get in touch with either Arthur or myself, we’d love to hear from you!