It’s the good ol’ plague time of year: If you haven’t been sick this month, you almost certainly knew somebody who was.
Seriously, people: If you would all stop “giving up” drinking after New Year’s Eve (or New Year’s Day brunch), I think we could all avoid this. Skeptical, are we? Well, allow me to expound the wonders of the miracle liqueur, Chartreuse!
If you read this column on a regular basis, you know I tend to avoid naming specific brands. This is an independent paper, and also the liquor companies don’t pay me. Sometimes, however, naming a specific brand is unavoidable—like when a spirit has such a unique flavor and proprietary process that there really are no substitutes. The king (pope?) of those brands is Chartreuse. It’s made under the supervision of monks, who follow mysterious protocols and recipes known only to them. It has been around long enough to have a color or two named after it, so that’s pretty OG. Most importantly to my theme: If you had been sick in the mid-to-late 1700s, had the means and happened to live a horse’s ride from a particular monastery in France, you probably would have been counting on it in some fashion for your recovery.
OK, enough of the fanboying and apocrypha: Let’s get to the bottom of the green bottle.
It turns out the history of this stuff is pretty interesting. If you want to read the entire thing, it’s available on the company website (Chartreuse.fr/en), but I will summarize it here. In 1605, Duc d’ Estreés gave the gift of a mysterious manuscript containing a recipe known as “The Elixir of Long Life” to a certain order of monks known as Carthusians (named after the Chartreuse Mountains, which became “Charter-House” to the English)—specifically, the ones residing in a small monastery outside of Paris. The order, founded by St. Bruno, encourages a life of silence and solitary living. I could go on, but since few people are as fascinated by the history of Western Monasticism as I am, let’s move along.
The manuscript was confusing and complex, but a certain brother “cracked the code” of the manuscript in 1764, creating the “Elixir Vegetal de La Grande-Chartreuse,” a version of which is still made today. Sadly, this version is not available in the U.S.—but if anyone wants to smuggle a bottle in from France for me, I will pay you handsomely. Anyway, this “elixir” became quite a local sensation, and the monks eventually came up with a more readily consumable version we know today as Green Chartreuse, which has an all-natural green hue. This version contains 130 herbs, and the secret to its color is closely guarded. However, due to a couple of centuries of revolution, intrigue, monastic orders being expelled from France, Napoleon, nationalization and later privatization, the recipe did pass through many hands at various points. All we need to know, for the purpose of this column, is that in 1840, the monks made a sweeter, less-potent Yellow Chartreuse—and ignited arguments among cocktail geeks 160 years later as to which version was the “real” one for the cocktail recipes of antiquity.
The monks are back in charge of production, with two brothers entrusted to mix the herbs. As for the herbs, I covered a few of the key ones in a recent column—but I know you’re here for the drinks. So here are a few of my favorite modern recipes using each type of Chartreuse. (If you wonder why I left out the Last Word cocktail, well, I’ve been doing this column since 2016, and that would be beating a dead horse at this point.)
- 2 ounces of rye whiskey
- 1/2 ounce of sweet vermouth
- 1/2 ounce of Yellow Chartreuse
- 1 dash each of angostura and orange bitters
Stir; serve up with a twist of lemon. This one was created for the bar Milk and Honey by Michael McIlroy. This was one of the first of the New York “rye-revolution” drinks I encountered, right around the time I tried the Redhook. They had a theme going here: Manhattan variations named after Brooklyn neighborhoods. Don’t let anyone tell you it’s made with the green stuff; if they try, slap them away with a slice of greasy pizza.
The Naked and Famous
- 1 ounce of mezcal
- 1 ounce of Aperol
- 1 ounce of Yellow Chartreuse
- 1 ounce of lime juice
Shake; serve up; and it’s pretty enough without a garnish. I featured this one in a column last year on “four-part drinks” if you want the history, and it’s still in my regular rotation. People just can’t seem to get enough mezcal these days, so I thought I would mention it again.
The Chartreuse Swizzle
- 1 1/2 ounces of Green Chartreuse
- 1 ounce of pineapple juice
- 3/4 ounce of lime juice
- 1/2 ounce of falernum
Mix in a tall, Collins-style glass with crushed ice using a swizzle stick, if you have one; otherwise, a barspoon works fine. You want the outside of the glass to be frosty; for easy handling, you can wrap a bar napkin around the outside. (I like to make mine look like a bandanna, but that’s optional, of course.) I like a mint garnish, but anything goes, including a lime wheel, pineapple or even basil, to switch up the aromatics. This one is from Smuggler’s Cove in San Francisco and is on the short list of “drinks I wish I’d invented,” but the credit goes to Marco Dionysos. Order one, and watch your bartender get giddy (or perhaps run to the back to Google it … no judgment; I’ve been there). If you make it at home, I suggest buying a spice-forward falernum, and not Taylor’s lighter version. Taylor’s will work in a pinch if you don’t want to make your own falernum. It’s better, though, to find yourself a bar with the “real stuff”; it makes for a much-more interesting cocktail.
I am not a doctor, and the preceding does not constitute medical advice. Besides, everyone knows only hot toddies cure the common cold. Enjoy some Chartreuse anyway!
Kevin Carlow is a bartender at Truss and Twine, and can be reached at CrypticCocktails@gmail.com.