When most people think of chartreuse, they imagine a greenish color inhabiting a slice of the color wheel somewhere between lime and olive. What they may not realize is that before there was chartreuse the color, there was Chartreuse the liqueur. If this is you, it may be time to open your mind, and your palate, to a liqueur with a rich history and a taste as distinctive as its greenish-yellow hue.
The history of Chartreuse dates back all the way to 1605, when, according to legend, François Hannibal d'Estrées, a marshal of artillery to French king Henry IV, presented the Carthusian monks with a recipe for a liqueur made with herbal extracts. Like a lot of liqueurs now popular in mixed drinks (including that college standby, Jägermeister), Chartreuse was originally intended to be taken as medicine. In 1764, various changes to the recipe coalesced into what is now known as green Chartreuse. Yellow Chartreuse, a sweeter and milder version of the green, was introduced in 1838.
Green Chartreuse is made with 130 different herbal extracts, according to a recipe that is known to only two monks and protected by a vow of silence. Perhaps due to this intense intermingling of flavors, Chartreuse is one of the few liqueurs that continues to age in the bottle (meaning the half-empty bottle you found at the back of your grandparents' liquor cabinet is in prime drinking condition). All this might go some of the way towards justifying its hefty price tag - a 750 mL bottle of this stuff set me back nearly 60 dollars. Ouch.
But I'm not sorry. I'm glad to have been introduced to Chartreuse, which I like to think of as the mysterious, elusive bad boy of the liqueur world. Although you usually expect liqueurs to be sweet and only mildly alcoholic, Chartreuse is neither. At 110 proof (more boozy than vodka, tequila, or whiskey), Chartreuse is serious stuff. All those secret ingredients give it a distinctively herbal yet surprisingly well-rounded taste that fills the mouth. I can't promise that you will like it, but I can promise that you've never tasted anything quite like it.
Pictured Above, Left to Right:
1. A bottle of green Chartreuse shows its unique color.
2. The Last Word, a classic cocktail made with Chartreuse, gin, lime, and maraschino liqueur.
3. The Chartreuse Smash. This combo of mint, turbinado, lemon, and chartreuse promises to convert "even the most adamant opponents" to Chartreuse lovers.
4. Chartreuse...and chocolate? Believe it. The Verte Chaud, by Jamie Boudreau.
5. Another Chartreuse-based cocktail, the Beuser and Angus Special.
Images: 1. Nancy Mitchell. 2, 3, 4, 5: as credited above.
Nancy Mitchell knows a lot about drinking. You can find more recipes and musings on her blog, The Backyard Bartender.