Chartreuse: The only liqueur so good they named a color after it
If you grew up like me, going to a traditional Greek diner once a week, you probably encountered bars that looked something like the one pictured below that also happened to serve pastry. Most of the bottles were dusty, oddly named, had no discernable use-by date.
And seriously, Galliano? What even is that? Why is the bottle three feet tall? Most of these cordials and liqueurs gained a spot on the bar in the seventies – an era where the collective palette seemed to covet either six ounces of straight gin, or cloy, radioactive-looking cocktails that would just as quickly give you type II diabetes as they would get you drunk. However, nestled somewhere between the Frangelico and the 25-year-old bottle of non-refrigerated dry vermouth were two unassuming gems, yellow and green chartreuse, and they were just sitting there, begging to be imbibed.
If you’re a fan of Quentin Tarantino, you might remember Death Proof, his contribution to the movie Grindhouse. There’s a scene where Tarantino serves this potion to his bar guests with the maxim “Chartreuse, the only liqueur so good they named a color after it.” Now he’s not wrong, but he is talking about the vastly inferior (yet still eminently drinkable) yellow chartreuse. Yellow chartreuse is the Domino’s Pizza of chartreuse. It’ll get the job done, but it’s not a culinary marvel. Here’s where green chartreuse comes in. Sticking with the pizza metaphor, green chartreuse is a gourmet pie, made from fresh dough and the finest cheese by an 85-year-old Italian grandmother in her 300-year-old brick oven overlooking the Mediterranean in Naples.
Like almost every spirit that’s over a hundred years old, chartreuse was initially conceived as medicine. About 50 miles due west of the French-Italian border, the Chartreuse mountain range provides a majestic backdrop for distillation. In the foothills, sequestered in a small valley, lies le Grande Chartreuse, the monastery responsible for distilling and distributing the liqueur of the same name. It is populated by Carthusian monks (also known as hermits), who have been making Chartreuse in some capacity since 1737.
Chartreuse is reported to have come from a secret manuscript describing a “long life elixir” given to the monks by Francois Annibal d’Estrees (a French nobleman and lieutenant general) in 1605. Rumor has it that only two monks know the recipe at any one time, and that the recipe has been lost at least twice in history, generally due to the monks hastily fleeing those pesky world wars. While no one knows exactly how it’s made, it’s generally accepted that neutral grain spirit is mixed with 130 proprietary herbs and plants and left to macerate and steep. Just like wine, which turns red because of contact with the skins of the grape, chartreuse gets its deep green color from the leaves of its ingredients. It’s also one of a handful of spirits that age and mature after bottling. Yellow chartreuse is almost pale ochre in color as it sees less time steeping, whereas green chartreuse is deep emerald green. There’s a strength difference as well. Yellow clocks in at 40% or 80 proof, whereas green is much stronger at 55% or 110 proof.
Chartreuse is an excellent example of the role distillation played in society before temperance movements became prominent. Historically, many towns would actually have a community still, where town residents could distill their own liquor for personal use. This practice owes largely to the medicinal role liquor played in cultures around this time, but is also where you see the creation of many different eau de vies and now popular spirits, such as Slivovitz. In the Alps, this phenomenon manifests itself as Genepi, which is a catchall term for homemade liquor made from local flora. Chartreuse is an excellent manifestation of this practice on a grand scale.
Taste-wise, chartreuse is exceptionally complex, and has a ton of vegetal and herbal notes balanced by sweetness. Green is definitely my preference, but some people prefer the milder yellow version. There’s a tradition with green chartreuse that I’ve only ever heard referred to as “passing the torch.” I should start by offering the disclaimer that if you do this, I am not responsible for any grievous bodily harm (Editor’s note: Neither is War on the Rocks. Please drink responsibly). Since green chartreuse is 110 proof, you can set it on fire. Passing the torch involves briefly dipping your finger in a shot of green Chartreuse, lighting it, passing the flame to a compatriot, putting your finger out in your mouth, and then taking the shot. It’s an interesting (but probably not wise) way to mark occasions, such as birthdays, anniversaries, Tuesdays, etc.
The Carthusian motto is “Stat crux dum volvitur orbis,” or “the Cross is steady while the world is turning.” Embossed on the Chartreuse bottle is the Carthusian coat of arms, which is a perfect graphical expression of this motto. While it’s admirable that the Carthusians of old considered their religious contributions so unwaveringly relevant to the world, their major contribution now is this delicious elixir. While drinking it may not necessarily lengthen your life, it’s a risk we should all be willing to take.
Alex Hecht is editor of Molotov Cocktail. He works as a Security Analyst in Washington, DC. Before working for the man, he managed the Gibson, a cocktail bar in DC’s U Street corridor. Alex’s life is admittedly mellower now, but his liver probably thanks him for that.
Photo credit: Arnaud B.