You’ve probably heard of gin, rum, vodka, bourbon, and tequila. If you’re a little more advanced in the way of cocktails and other spirits, you probably know your way around mezcal, vermouth, and absinthe, too. But there’s a host of other libations with strange-sounding names, like cynar and campari. What the @#$! is this stuff, anyway?
Today, we’re going to demystify Chartreuse.
On the first day of 7th grade, our teachers decided it would be a brilliant idea to play a variety of get-to-know-you icebreakers. During one of these dreaded activities, I had to approach five classmates I didn’t know and ask them about their favorite things, from foods to movies. After ten minutes of this exercise (excruciating for me as a shy person), the teacher asked us to share our favorite colors with the group. Most people said mundane things—think “baby blue” or “red”—but one girl grinned and yelled mischievously, “Chartreuse!”
What I didn’t know then was that the color chartreuse, pronounced “SHAR-TROOZE” in American English, had actually gotten its name from the liqueur of the same hue. I’ve been seeing the word “Chartreuse” on cocktail bar menus all over lately; intrigued, I decided to investigate its origins and determine how it tastes on its own. Here are the main things you need to know about this French liqueur.
Let’s start with the basics: there are two types of Chartreuse, green and yellow. Green Chartreuse has a higher ABV (alcohol by volume), clocking in at 55 percent, or 110 proof. It tends to mix better with a cleaner base, such as gin, due to its stronger herbal flavors. Yellow Chartreuse (80 proof) is milder and sweeter, as it is flavored with saffron; it pairs well with bourbon or scotch.
The recipe for the liqueur is a secret that’s only known to two (or three?) monks. Way back in 1084, a silent order of Roman Catholic monastics known as the Carthusians were started by St. Bruno of Cologne. Hundreds of years later (1605, to be exact), the Carthusian monks received a gift from the King of France’s Marshal of Artillery: an ancient manuscript with a recipe for an “elixir of long life.” After studying this manual for a long time—some things are just way complicated, even for monks—the Carthusians created green Chartreuse in 1764 and yellow Chartreuse in 1838. The two monks in Voiron, France that actually produce the Chartreuse each know a different half of the recipe; supposedly the Father Superior of the Order holds the entire recipe.
But really… what’s in Chartreuse? What I can tell you is that both types of Chartreuse are said to contain about 130 herbs, flowers, and spices. (No wonder the monks spent a long time creating the first batch.) It’s believed that there are different proportions of the ingredients in the green versus the yellow Chartreuse, however.
If the bitterness of campari or amaro is too much for you, you might like the taste of Chartreuse. I’ll admit that bitter flavors are still an acquired taste for me, so I’m still learning to like drinks like the Negroni. When I tried green Chartreuse straight for the first time, I was expecting the toothpaste-like taste of fernet; however, I was pleasantly surprised to find that I didn’t hate it. In fact, I tried Chartreuse and I liked it, I liked it (words sung to the tune of that Katy Perry song). Yes, it was potent, and yes, it was herbal, but I can see why some bartenders are able to drink it straight.
OK, Chartreuse sounds cool. So what are some cocktails that have Chartreuse in them? Turns out that you can make at least two kick-ass cocktails with Chartreuse. The first one is the Last Word, a cocktail from the Prohibition era originally created in Detroit that has recently resurged in popularity, especially in Seattle. It’s an equal parts drink, which means that each component has the same amount in it (in this case, 3/4 oz). The Last Word is sippable and clean, yet herbaceous, and tastes better to me than the Chartreuse alone.
3/4 oz. gin
3/4 oz. Green Chartreuse
3/4 oz. maraschino liqueur
3/4 oz. fresh lime juice
Shake ingredients with ice and strain into a chilled glass.
Another delicious cocktail that you can make is called the Greenpoint (yes, in reference to the Greenpoint neighborhood of Brooklyn, but also to the hue of the chartreuse in the cocktail). This drink is made with yellow Chartreuse. While the drink is certainly spirit forward as expected, I liked it better than many other spirit-forward drinks I’ve had in the past due to its very subtle sweetness.
The Greenpoint cocktail is a variation on the Brooklyn cocktail (which itself is a variation on the classic Manhattan). While the Brooklyn cocktail uses dry vermouth and maraschino, the Greenpoint uses sweet vermouth and yellow Chartreuse instead. It was created at Sasha Petraske’s legendary speakeasy, Milk and Honey, which has been searching for a new location to re-open in since October 2014.
2 oz Rye whiskey
.5 oz Yellow Chartreuse
.5 oz Sweet vermouth
1 dash Angostura bitters
1 dash Orange bitters
After adding all ingredients to a mixing glass, fill it with ice. Stir, then strain into a cocktail glass. Add a lemon twist for garnish.
So there you have it. Chartreuse may seem mysterious (with the recipe protected by monks with a vow of silence and all), but at the end of the day, it’s a rockin’ addition to some absolutely delicious cocktails. As Quentin Tarantino’s character says in the film Death Proof, “Chartreuse…[It’s] the only liqueur so good they named a color after it.”