Green Chartreuse is an herbal liqueur made by the monks of the Abbey de la Grande Chartreuse, near Voiron, France since 1764. The original recipe dates back to 1605, when Francois Hannibal d'Estrees gifted a recipe for "An Elixir of Long Life" to the Carthusian monks. It took more than 130 years for the monks to figure out how to make the recipe. This original recipe, first made in 1737, is still used to make Elixir Vegetal. Green Chartreuse is a variation on this recipe, and was first made nearly 30 years later.
With the French Revolution in 1789, all monks were forced out of France, and religious property was turned over to the French government. The original recipe was copied, and passed through many hands before being returned to the monks in 1816.
Green Chartreuse is a brilliant greenish-yellow color, 110 proof, and contains 130 different herbs and spices. The color chartreuse is actually named for the liqueur. The recipe is known to only two monks, both sworn to vows of silence. The aroma and flavor of Green Chartreuse is incredibly complex - warmly spicy, herbal, licoricey, and many shades of green. Nothing else smells quite like it. It is indispensable in cocktails.
In 1903, the French government nationalized the Chartreuse monastery. The monks fled to Tarragona, Spain and opened a distillery, where they adapted their recipe to the local herbs that were available. These bottlings are very rare and quite expensive today. Between 1921 and 1929, they also owned a distillery in Marseille, whose product was also known as "Tarragona" Chartreuse.
In 1838, the monks developed Yellow Chartreuse, a sweeter, lower proof version of their liqueur. While the recipe is related to their Green Chartreuse, this version is yellow in color, sweeter, and only 80 proof. It is naturally colored with saffron. The aroma and flavor of yellow Chartreuse is vastly different than the green version. Yellow Chartreuse smells sunny and warm, with honeyed notes, fruity tones, and the spicy, slightly synthetic notes from saffron. Yellow Chartreuse is not substitutable for green Chartreuse in cocktail recipes.
The monks of la Grande Chartreuse also make a version of both colors of their liqueur known as "VEP" - "Viellissement Exceptionnellement Prolonge", which is aged for many years in oak barrels. It is most commonly found in liter bottles in individual wooden cases, and is generally twice the price of normal Chartreuse.
For the 900th anniversary of the founding of the monastery, the monks released a slightly sweeter version of their green Chartreuse.
Last, Elixir Vegetal de la Grand Chartreuse is a very high proof spirit made by the monks. Elixir Vegetal is not currently imported into the United States, as it's considered medicinal, and does not pass FDA guidelines.
Elixir Vegetal is made from the original 1605 recipe that was eventually used to make Green Chartreuse. It is unsweetened, and 138 proof, but tastes quite similar to the more common liqueur. The most common way to drink Elixir Vegetal is to treat it like absinthe—use the dropper supplied in the bottle to saturate a sugar cube, then drip cool water over the cube until it is dissolved.