Once one ventures beyond the “base liquors” used to create cocktails — spirits including gin, rum, vodka, tequila, whiskeys and more — there remains an extensive and tantalizingly varied world of liqueurs to discover. From sweet libations like Benedictine and Drambuie to savory Italian amari, the flavors and potential combinations are practically unlimited.
But when it comes to a spirit that offers thrillingly complex character with a fascinating backstory, there’s nothing to compare with Chartreuse. And exotic though it may be, it’s long been available in Western North Carolina liquor stores.
The French spirit has a vegetal, minty and herbaceous taste so multilayered that it’s difficult to put into words, though many have tried. In his influential 1956 book The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks, David Embury included Chartreuse among “the king[s] of liqueurs.” More recently, celebrated British mixologist Simon Difford wrote in his Encyclopedia of Cocktails that the spirit’s “strong and distinctive flavour” makes Chartreuse “a challenging but rewarding drink for the uninitiated.”
Most every writer who has turned his or her attention to the beguiling spirit remarks on Chartreuse’s colorful history. While the specific details are muddled in the mists of time (“nobody knows where this ‘recipe’ comes from,” admits the history on Chartreuse’s official website), most historians agree that the original recipe for the spirit infused with herbs and spices found in the French countryside was a gift from Duc Francois Hannibal d’Estrées (King Henry IV’s marshal of artillery) to Carthusian monks in 1605.
The cloistered monks worked with the recipe, making adjustments to the ingredients and proportions thereof, for the better part of the next 150 years. They placed great emphasis upon maximizing its reputed curative properties. The monks finally settled on what would become the official formulation in 1764; Frère Jerome Maubec of the Massif de Chartreuse monastery codified the recipe with its blend made from a brandy base and some 130 plants and herbs. (It’s worth noting that the spirit isn’t named after the color chartreuse — it’s the other way around.)
Unluckily for the monks, the chaos of the French Revolution led to the monastery being abandoned for a time. A sole monk left behind to guard the recipe was captured and put in jail. As recounted in Anthony Dias Blue‘s lively The Complete Book of Spirits, the monk’s captors didn’t notice the written Chartreuse recipe hidden on his person, and a sympathetic soul smuggled the paper out of the prison and to safety.
After the revolution and for the next 75 years, the monks produced Chartreuse. But, following a tradition begun centuries earlier by alchemists seeking the “elixir of life,” its intended use remained medicinal rather than recreational. Yet those who tried Chartreuse were often won over by its intriguing flavor.
As a result, commercial production of two modern-day versions of Chartreuse began in 1840. The so-called “Green” Chartreuse has an alcoholic content of 55%, while the sweeter (and more approachable) yellow version comes in at 40%. Just about 100 years ago, responsibility for marketing and production of the liqueur was ceded to a private commercial concern, but Carthusian monks continue to oversee all aspects of production. And just to add a frisson of mystery to Chartreuse’s saga, today the original recipe is known only to three monks (some reports say two, others four), each of whom is sworn to secrecy, only permitted to share the information when facing death.
There are several ways to enjoy Chartreuse. According to Asheville-based brand ambassador, event promoter and bartender Jeremy Hood (aka the Urban Gastronome), one of those is straight up. “It’s delectable as a digestif when served bitterly cold,” he says. Accordingly, “You won’t find Chartreuse on my bar at home; you will find it in my freezer.”
Hood says that when it comes to cocktails, Chartreuse is best known as one of the components of the Prohibition-era Last Word, which also happens to be our favorite cocktail. (It’s also one the easiest to make among multiple-ingredient, spirit-based libations. See the recipe.) Chartreuse blends especially well with gin, he adds.
But Hood does point out that Green Chartreuse can easily overpower subtler ingredients when mixing. “If I’m looking to allow the other ingredients in a cocktail to stand out, I go to mellower Yellow Chartreuse,” he says. “It still exhibits an herbaceous profile, [but] it enables the other ingredients to play the starring role.”
There do exist rarefied versions of the liqueur known as Chartreuse VEP. We have never tasted them, nor do we know anyone who has. These oak-aged treasures are hard to come by, retailing for close to $200 for a 1-liter bottle (a 750-milliliter bottle of conventional Chartreuse sells locally for between $50 and $60). But for all but the wealthiest drinks aficionados, the standard versions will be more than adequate.
In fact, a kind of aging continues to take place even after the bottle is opened. “Chartreuse gets better with age as it is in the bottle,” says Hood. “Sort of like leftover stews, chili and soups.”
And it does mix well, whether as part of the Last Word or one of the many variants (Dutch Word using genever, Ultima Palabra using tequila and so on) or in other adventurous pairings. “Chartreuse plays an important role when creating cocktails,” Hood says. Bravely mixing it with other spirits “enables mixologists the opportunity to become liquid scientists. Of course, our guests are the guinea pigs … but in a polite way. And having a backstory to share adds to the overall experience.”