A few words on Chartreuse

This high-octane tipple is a springtime winner

By Zach Hagadone
Reader Staff

Often in winter the best policy is to pretend that you’ve died for as long as the living will allow. But spring is the season for living anew. Pardon the vague religio-spiritual language, but we’ve been drinking Chartreuse. 

Photo by Zach Hagadone.

Made by the Carthusian monks of La Grande Chartreuse, France, the exact recipe has been a secret since 1605. The bottle tells us that this grassy-green liqueur is concocted from 130 “alpine herbs” and “the only liqueur to have a color named after it.” At 43% proof, it’s hardly a lightweight tipple.

There are a lot of great words on the back of a bottle of Chartreuse — monks by definition being wordy guys, even if they’ve taken a vow of silence — including, “unexpected,” “remarkably beguiling” and “unique.” 

It is all of these things, and famously inspires volubility. No less than Hunter S. Thompson incorporated it into his infamous daily routine, consuming the “remarkably beguiling” spirit at 11 p.m., the hour before he started writing (at least according to Hunter: The Strange and Savage Life of Hunter S. Thompson, by E. Jean Carroll). 

Appropriate, then, that so many of the pre-Prohibition Era Chartreuse cocktails involve writing in their name. There’s the “The Written Word”: 3/4 ounces of gin, 3/4 oz. green Chartreuse, 3/4 oz. Cointreau 3/4 ounce fresh lime juice, shaken on ice and served in a coupe or martini glass, then garnished with a cherry or lime (wedge or wheel, being dealer’s choice) on a toothpick.

There’s also the most famous and accessible Chartreuse cocktail, titled, “The Last Word”: 3/4 oz. gin; 3/4 oz. green Chartreuse; 3/4 oz. maraschino liqueur; 3/4 oz. lime juice, freshly squeezed; shaken on ice and served a la coupe, and garnished with a brandied cherry.

A close reader might recognize some trends afoot with these recipes. For one, the frequent mention of “green” Chartreuse. That’s because there are two kinds of this liqueur: the green variety — the only naturally green liquor — being the walloping 43% proof; the yellow variety clocking in at “only” about 40% alcohol by volume.

The other trend is the presence of gin as a complement. Refreshing and herbal as these cocktails are, take note that nearly every ingredient in them is booze. Adding it all up, each of those cocktails is north of a double, and almost all of the constituent spirits are 80-proof and above. These are not to be trifled with.

The final trend is the presence of either lime or cherry as a garnish. Limes are de rigueur in many cocktails, but cherries are pretty sparing in the cocktail books, reserved mostly for whiskey drinks. Yet, Chartreuse is such an “unexpected” amalgam of flavors and aromas that both the sweetness of a good cherry (Luxardo, not the red dye No. 40 abominations) or the tart fresh spritz of lime will serve to layer on the complexity.

On a fine spring Saturday afternoon of puttering in the yard, we opened a fifth of green Chartreuse (a hefty $54.95), pint of New Amsterdam gin ($8.95), a bottle of low-shelf sparkling wine (about $12 at the local gas station) and some club soda for insurance. We couldn’t find any quality maraschino liqueur at the liquor store, and so just used a jar of the Luxardo cherries and their attendant juices.

We tried to make a Written Word and Last Word with these ingredients, but lacking some critical components, such as Cointreau and maraschino liqueur, they came off pretty lame — for one thing, the color lent to the drink by the cherry juice brought to mind the toilette of someone in desperate need of several tall glasses of water. Color is a signifier for a lot of things; and, Chartreuse being the only alcoholic drink with a color named after it, needs to retain its purity. No one wants to drink anything that looks like it came out of rusty pipes or failing kidneys.

Necessity being the mother of invention, we went a little wide and came up with some fine substitutes, the first and best being a cocktail that is apparently enjoyed on the regular by Queen Elizabeth II: 1 oz. green Chartreuse topped with sparkling wine, served in a Champagne flute and garnished with a Luxardo cherry. We’ll call this one “The QEII.”

The heft of the Chartreuse received a much-needed buttressing from the effervescence of the wine, while the sweetness of the cherry cut its medicinal qualities. Overall, it ended up being a less potent variant on most Chartreuse cocktails, and not so much refreshing as bracing. I suppose if you’re the longest reigning monarch in history — and still drinking stuff like this when you’re in your late-90s — you need a bit of bracing.

Likewise, the utilitarian mix of 1 oz. of green Chartreuse, 1 oz. of gin, and Luxardo cherry built over ice in a highball glass and topped with club soda was an easy-sipping winner.

Yet, The QEII took the field, with one taster stating, “The queen knows how to drink a drink.”

Our “Final Word” on green Chartreuse is that it’s an elemental spirit, perfectly suited to spring, but requires a fair amount of finesse to handle. Better to eschew the various Wordy concoctions and mix with sparkling wine or carbonated water. Maybe that makes us low-brow, but the queen may beg to differ.

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