“Chartreuse, the only liqueur so good they named a color after it.” –Death Proof, script & film by Quentin Tarantino
Conceived 400 years ago as an elixir of long life, I suspect that the mention of Chartreuse in Death Proof is allegorical for the film’s theme of immortality and invulnerability. Having returned to fashion in recent years, this fascinating liqueur drew me on an inconvenient and magnificent side-trip during my recent time in France. In the sub-alpine city of Voiron, the distillery of Chartreuse Diffusion includes the largest liqueur cellar in the world... for now. The big surprise of my visit was the fact that the immense, immobile casks that have been used to age their storied spirit for more than half a century are being drained for the last time. Production has already started seamlessly at a new facility.
The problem is that the residents of Voiron realized that the largest liqueur cellar in the world was housing millions of liters of 110-proof spirit within city limits and it might be an incendiary hazard. I don't know if the flames of a Chartreuse apocalypse would burn green, but the residents of Voiron didn't want to find out.
Voiron is actually the fourth facility that the Carthusian Order has utilized to make their liqueur commercially, so this isn't a lament that enthusiasts need to panic because Chartreuse will be ruined. One previous facility in Fourvoirie was built in 1860 but abandoned when the Carthusians were expelled from France in 1903. They moved to Tarragona, Spain at that point and the Spanish bottles made in that era are very coveted and valuable today. The order eventually returned to France and their Fourvoirie distillery in 1930 only for it to be wiped out in a landslide five years later (d'oh).
After being treated to tastes of some special Chartreuse bottlings and custom libations at the Voiron distillery, I proceeded almost an hour's drive into the French Alps to the Carthusians' sprawling, palatial (and walled) 12th century monastery that would make any Bordeaux Chateau look like a tool shed. It is here that a group of fewer than 100 monks live in solitude; only two of whom are entrusted to blend and keep their recipe of 130 herbs that comprise their namesake liqueur. The order once defied Napoleon to divulge the recipe as seized property of the French State, and they certainly don't answer the door.
Chartreuse is thought to perhaps be the only distilled spirit which improves with age in bottle like fine wine. Collectors have devised a methods to identify the serial numbers and other markings on the bottles in order to determine their precise age, and old bottles demand all levels of premium. After the last casks in Voiron are drained, the home of the new distillery will appear on the front label and another era will begin. I know I'll set aside some Voiron bottles for posterity before that happens.
- Adam Winkel