Chartreuse

“Some say the first bottle of ____ was brought to the court of Charlemagne by a captured Druid mystic, who proclaimed it the greatest potion in all the blah blah blah blah lies.”
— Every Liqueur Marketing Team Ever

Preface:

I generally council people to just ignore the stories behind brands, because (1) they don’t matter and (2) they’re usually untrue. Made-up historical relevance is the herpes of the liquor industry, an embarrassing but manageable stain that we learn to tolerate because there is no cure. Examples are too numerous to list and range from minor exaggeration to outright lies, but as a rule, when the story begins 200+ years ago, I don’t even want to hear it.

This is true for all liquor, across the board, everywhere. Except Chartreuse.

[chartreuse] shadows

Facts:

Name: Chartreuse — Yellow, Green, V.E.P., Elexir Vegetal, etc.
Category: Liqueur — Herbal
ABV: 55% for the Green; 40% for the Yellow; 69% for the Elixir
Origin: France, at least since 1737, allegedly dating to 1605 (or earlier).
Characteristics: Intense and pungent; beguiling; very herbal; sweet, strong, and full; vegetal flavors, anise, saffron, honey, mint, and about 130 others.

The Order:

A quick word about the Carthusian monks:

[chartreuse] coat of armsIn 1084, St. Bruno founded a spin-off of the Catholic church he called the Carthusian Order, after the Chartreuse mountains in France where he chose to live. The motto of the Carthusians is “Stat crux dum volvitur orbis” Latin for “The cross is steady while the world is turning,” and indeed, for the last 931 turns of the world, the Carthusian monks still live almost exactly as they always have.

It is one of the most ascetic orders of Christianity in existence, and is all about finding God through contemplation, solitude, silence, and prayer. They literally don’t talk all day. They barely see each other. Technology obviously is non-existent. It’s all stone and wood. Their whole charterhouse is built so one monk can bring a meal and spin it through a hatch so the feeder and the feedee don’t have to interact. It’s broadly misunderstood that they’ve taken some kind of vow of silence, but this is not strictly speaking true. It’s more that their lives are built around the rhythm of stillness, solitude and silence, and because speech breaks that, it is reserved for certain ritual occasions. And they also make Chartreuse, as they have since 1737.

[chartreuse] intro

History:

Here’s what we’re told:

In 1605, some Carthusian monks just outside Paris were met by Francois Hannibal d’ Estrées, Marshal of King Henri IV artillery, who gave them a recipe for the Elixir of Long Life. The recipe was hopelessly complex and the initial recipients couldn’t figure it out, so after 100 or so years the recipe was sent to the mother order, Grande Chartreuse, in the French alps near Grenoble. The monks there studied the recipe intently and ultimately cracked it, and in 1737, the Carthusian monks produced the very first Chartreuse, a vivid green from 132 different herbs, roots, and spices harvested not only at specific times of year but specific times of day. Part of the magic is that the color is natural: it somehow doesn’t turn brown like every other chlorophyll infusion in the world.

It was 71% alcohol and, like most liqueurs back then, used as medicine. But people liked to drink it as well, so in 1764, a milder version was developed at 55% alcohol, what we now know as Green Chartreuse (praising Green Chartreuse for its mildness is like praising a forest fire for its subtlety, but I suppose it’s all relative). In 1838, they made an actually mild version at 40%, Yellow Chartreuse, which uses about 80 plants, and is colored mostly by saffron.

There have been interruptions over the last 278 years. As one might imagine. The monks were forced from the country after the French Revolution in 1793, and again in 1903 when the government nationalized the distillery. In 1810 Napoleon demanded all secret recipes turned over to the state, but his scientists couldn’t make sense of it. It was made in exile for a time. In the 1930s, the distillery was destroyed by a landslide. All these obstacles, all this mystery, and still, these men who in 2015 still wear white robes in stone rooms and don’t speak and pray all day, they still produce one of the most beguiling, tastiest, inimitable liqueurs in the world.

This fucking guy.

This fucking guy.

Here’s what is indisputably true:

It’s made by Carthusian monks, in France, according to a secret recipe. It’s been made since the mid 1700s. It is one of the few bottles behind the bar that matures as it ages. And many of us regard it as the greatest liqueur ever made.

Here’s what I sincerely believe is true, despite our lack of proof:

All of it. I believe all of it. That there are 132 ingredients. That ingredients are harvested at specific hours to get the right chlorophyll levels. That the color is natural at all.

Everyone repeats these endlessly, but we have no proof. All the same, I choose to believe. It tastes true.

Here’s what let’s just say is true because who cares:

That 1605 business. Why not? Everything else about it seems true, so why not this? Whether the recipe was from 1605 or 1737 couldn’t possibly matter less, so whatever. I’ll tell that story.

[chartreuse] detail

Production:

For a while I was ready to call shenanigans on the whole thing, because how could these monks who probably still use a damn abacus make enough of this stuff for the million or so bottles bought every year? But they do. As with the recipe itself, you can figure things out when you have nothing but time on your hands.

IMG_0322

Photo credit: The likewise inimitable Adam Stemmler

It goes like this: there are only two monks who know the recipe, Dom Benoît and Brother Jean-Jacques, and they aren’t allowed to do things like ride in a car together. Every year, a total of some 18 tons of the various 130+ berries, roots, herbs, barks, and leaves are delivered in secret numbered sacks to the herb room, where only those two monks dry, grind, and combine them into new sacks, which are then themselves numbered and sent to the distillery.

Even the distillery is off-limits to most, but there they have help — two “laymen” who help physically run the stills. Each sack is macerated for it’s certain amount of hours in neutral spirit, and then distilled for about 8 hours. It is then macerated again for color and flavor, sweetened with sugar and honey, then sent to age in large neutral oak casks for couple years until it’s ready.

There’s Green and Yellow, of course. In Europe they sell the original “Elixir,” at 69% ABV. There’s also the Green and Yellow versions of the V.E.P. (Vieillissement Exceptionnellement Prolongé), a more expensive, extra-aged version that is devastatingly tasty.

[chartreuse] vep

Uses:

For many of us, Green Chartreuse is inseparable from the Last Word cocktail. Invented at the Detroit Athletic Club in 1916, it twiddled in cocktail purgatory until being resurrected by the legendary Murray Stenson, at the Zig Zag cafe, somewhere around 2005. It shouldn’t work but it does, and there is, quite simply, nothing else like it. It’s gone around the world and everyone knows it now. Ask for one next time you’re at a cocktail bar. And get the original. No, you don’t want to try their house variation with tarragon-infused Aquavit or whatever instead of gin. You want a Last Word.

The Last Word
0.75oz gin
0.75oz Green Chartreuse
0.75oz Luxardo Maraschino liqueur
0.75oz lime juice
Add all ingredients to tin and shake well. Strain into chilled cocktail class, and garnish with a real maraschino cherry. If you have no cherries, or only have the shit cherries the color of a clown’s nose, just leave it naked.

Beyond that, there a classic called a Bijou, which is equal parts gin, sweet vermouth, and Green Chartreuse, and which I admit I’ve never liked. Yellow Chartreuse makes one of my favorite Manhattan variations, the painfully delicious Greenpoint. There’s the fantastic tiki-d out Chartreuse Swizzle by Marco Dionysos up at Smuggler’s Cove in San Francisco. I’ve also had great fun with the Silent Order, a Green Chartreuse-based drink I enjoy pulling out of my mental weird shit folder when such a thing is called for.

More Chartreuse cocktails here.

TRIVIA!: Interior decorators among you will know Chartreuse already as a the name of a color. There are in fact two colors, chartreuse green and chartreuse yellow, and they are named after the liqueurs. Or, as Quentin Tarantino says, fumbling in front of the camera in Deathproof, “the only liquor so good they named a color after it.”

Further reading:

  • This is a nice little article by Sean Kenyon that goes slightly more into history (and some first hand impressions).
  • The uncommonly informative official website.
  • Some fascinating information on the Carthusian monks, from their own website.
  • For those who are seriously interested in the life of these monks, there is a nearly 3 hour documentary called Into Great Silence. Be warned: there is nothing about the liqueur in the film. There are no words. It’s just a camera on the wall, no explanation, just a witness to the strangely admirable silent rhythms of these men who give up their entire lives in search of peace. Trailer on youtube.

Widow’s Kiss

“As the scene opens, you are up in your grandmother’s attic opening the dusty steamer trunk she brought from Europe in 1914. You reverently turn back layer upon layer of old lace and brocade … unveiling a packet of old love letters tied in silk ribbon. Ancient dried rose petals flutter down from between the envelopes.

This is what the Widow’s Kiss is like. Sweet, complex and darkly golden, thought-provoking and introspective. It is a cocktail of fall turning toward winter, and it wins [my] award as the most evocative drink ever. Have one by the fire.”

— Ted Haigh, Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails

There’s something about the Widow’s Kiss that compels people write about it romantically. It’s not just that it’s delicious, though it is. And it certainly has one of the best cocktail names in history. But there’s something else… as with the lovely Colleen Bawn, this drink uses Yellow Chartreuse and Bénédictine, both pungent herbal liqueurs, which lock into each other like a vacuum seal. They work wonderfully together, full and rich and infinitely complex. Add the apple brandy at their base and some Angostura bitters to spice the apples, and the result synergizes into wistfulness like a half-forgotten memory, and seems to force people to write about it like this:

On a chilly November evening, post-Dallas, post-Watergate, post-Florida, post-9/11, and not-yet-post-Iraq, there’s no small amount of satisfaction to be found in a drink that calls up a honeyed past, and provides a moment’s distraction from the bitter present.

— Paul Clarke @ The Cocktail Chronicles

Or consider The New York Herald, in the 1890s, writing an article about the drink’s creator George J. Kappeler and his bar the Holland House, declaring:

[The Widow’s Kiss is] the most passionate poem which the liquor laureates of the Holland house hand out.

Facile alliteration aside, I think you catch my point. People just can’t seem to help themselves.

Not that I blame them. The Widow’s Kiss is a wonderful drink, in any of its forms. Everyone agrees on the principal ingredients: Apple brandy (either the clean American kind or the earthier French Calvados), Yellow Chartreuse, Bénédictine, and Angostura bitters. Most agree on the proportions, preparation, and technique, as well, though there is some reasonable dissent. Here’s the thing: it’s really goddamn sweet. Tastes have grown drier in the 117 years since this drink’s invention. So there are three things that people do:

  1. Reduce the proportion of the liqueurs. It’s traditionally 2:1:1, and some very reputable people, like Jim Meehan in the PDT Cocktail Book, go instead 4:1:1. This or something like it is similarly recommended by Savoy Stomp, Eric Felten at the Wall Street Journal, and others.
  2. Do your best to water it down. Some, like David Wondrich in Imbibe, stick with with Kappeler’s original instructions to shake this drink instead stirring it. Shaking is considerably more effective to dilute and chill than stirring (100 seconds of stirring ≈ 12 seconds of shaking), and it also aerates, making the drink thinner. Others, as with the Stinger (another all-booze drink that’s too sweet), advise crushed ice to deliver the extra water.
  3. Deal with it. Accept the drink as it is and only serve it after dinner, at the end of the night, or any other time a sweet drink is called for.

After an exhaustive and grisly round of experiments, I am firmly in camp #3. My favorite recipe:

Widow’s Kiss
1.5oz Calvados [French apple brandy]
0.75oz Yellow Chartreuse
0.75oz Bénédictine
2 dashes Angostura bitters
Stir over ice, strain into cocktail glass; garnish with nostalgia.

Notes on execution:

Insofar as calvados vs. apple brandy is concerned, go with calvados if you’ve got it. It’s a heavier spirit, more rustic and agricultural than American apple brandy, and it seamlessly fills the gaps left by the liqueurs and bitters. With calvados, use either no garnish or a neutral aesthetic garnish, like a cherry. If all you have is Laird’s Apple Brandy, or even worse, Applejack, feel free to make the drink but garnish with a lemon peel: the lemon oils offer a rather pleasant misdirection to compensate for the brandy’s lack of weight.

Whether to shake or stir (a.k.a. why above point #2 doesn’t really work): this kind of sweetness is only acceptable to the palate if it’s enrobed in velvet texture. Shaking makes it thinner, losing the silkiness and shoving the drink into diaspora: too sweet for a thin drink, too thin for a sweet drink. What I found curious about this experiment was that even though more dilution means less overall sugar/ounce, the shaken drink had an increased perception of sweetness. It needs the texture. That’s all there is to it. Stirring, for the win.

As for reducing the ratios of the liqueurs (a.k.a. How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Sweetness): maybe you shouldn’t try to mitigate the sweetness. Maybe you should just accept that this is a sweet drink. My feeling is that the Widow’s Kiss is a perfect after-dinner-on-a-brisk-winter-night drink. Apple, honey, cinnamon spice… what could be better than that? It’s strong and warming, with no ingredients under 80 proof. It’s pungent and herbal, with complexity that unfolds over time. The sweetness helps neutralize the strength, the thickness helps justify the sweetness, and the flavors help recommend it all. They lean on each other like a tripod, and changing one brings the whole thing down.

That’s the problem with the PDT recipe. It’s fine, but it adapts the recipe to be an average anytime drink, as opposed to an exceptional after dinner drink. It loses the magic, the fifth essence, that ineffable harmony that makes Wondrich write things like “we don’t know if Kappeler had any particular widow in mind. If he did, she must have been something.”

Colleen Bawn

As I’ve already said, I think maybe more than once, it was in Boston that I learned how to drink. The bar that was singularly instrumental in teaching me was Green Street Grill in Cambridge.

It was the kind of bar people go out of their way for. Fortunately for me, I lived about 35 seconds from it, and it was there I had my first Old Fashioned, first taste of Fernet Branca, first flip, fizz, Collins, sour, etc., etc., etc. And it was there I had my first Colleen Bawn, then a fixture on their extended cocktail menu.

We ordered so many of them that winter that the bartenders used to groan when they saw Vikki’s bright red coat walk in the front door, because they knew they would be forced to make at least one egg drink. Eggs, you see, are a giant pain in the ass. You have to shake them once without ice and then once with, and with the ice you have to shake them forever, and you usually have to garnish ornately, artful dashes of bitters or hand-grated nutmeg or other such annoying flourishes that take up valuable doing-other-things time.

It’s worth noting, however, that we didn’t care about their groaning then, and I have even less sympathy for it now that I work with eggs myself. Never let a bartender make you feel bad about ordering a drink. If like Amaretto Sours, order an Amaretto Sour. I don’t care if you like Splenda Mojitos in January: you want what you want, and our job is to make it for you. Unless, of course, you order Ramos Gin Fizzes on a busy weekend night, in which case you can go fuck yourself.

Anyway.

The Colleen Bawn (meaning “fair girl,” from the Irish cailín bán) is the name of a play from 1860 by Dion Boucicault. It dramatizes the true story of Ellen Hainley, murdered at 15 by her wealthy husband and his servant. The murder of a beautiful young commoner and indictment among the aristocracy caused something of a stir, as you might imagine, and the story became about justice overcoming social class. Both men were hanged, and Hanley was interred under the inscription:

“Here lies the Colleen Bawn
Murdered on the Shannon
July 14th, 1819”

Once again, the connection between this cocktail and its name eludes me — my best guess is that it’s named after a “fair girl” because it’s so lovely, but who the hell knows? What we do know is that  it shows up in 1904 in Edward Spencer’s The Flowing Bowl, and it’s as good today as it was then:

Colleen Bawn
1oz Rittenhouse Rye
1oz Yellow Chartreuse
1oz Bénédictine
1 full egg
Shake without ice to whip the egg; add ice and shake with hearty vigor; strain into cocktail glass; garnish with grated nutmeg and/or cinnamon

Yes, I realize I’m advertising a cold weather drink with pictures of sunshine. I live in San Diego. Deal with it.

The egg combined with the saffron in the Chartreuse gives the drink the color of custard, which texture-wise is not so far off. It is creamy with egg, smooth and a little thick. The rye, big as it is, is more for infrastructure than flavor; the liqueurs, as with the wonderful Widow’s Kiss, mix perfectly together. Individually, Yellow Chartreuse and Bénédictine are both full, pungent, herbal French liqueurs, and it seems kind of silly to put them together save for the fact that it works.

This is a drink of strange opposites: it’s highly complex but not difficult, it’s a little sweet but also a bit bracing. While it’s good any time, the thickness of the egg and the sweetness of the liqueurs (also that one cocktail is the equivalent of 3.2oz of 80 proof liquor) make the Colleen Bawn perfect as the last drink on a cold night.

Grapefruit Lime Cordial

First things first, some (I promise) brief history & trivia on the British Royal Navy, scurvy, DrPepper Snapple Group Inc., and what any of that has to do with a grapefruit lime cordial I made in my kitchen the other day:

Scurvy is a degenerative and ultimately fatal disease caused by not enough vitamin C. As we can get like 1,200% of our daily C from one glass of orange juice, we in the 21st century don’t often require bravery in the face of scurvy. But to sailors in the 18th century, it was a essentially a plague. In that century, the 1700s, the Royal Navy lost more sailors to scurvy than they did to actual war.

Not that some didn’t have good ideas. One commander, Admiral Edward Vernon stumbled onto something when in he decreed in 1740 that lime juice be added to his sailors rations, originally to make their gross, algae’d water more palatable. Surprisingly, his men thrived while the others’ teeth fell out. There was only one problem with this: the only way to preserve lime juice for long sea voyages was to add it to their daily rations of rum (a shit hot dirty rum at that, which direly needed lime juice’s charms anyway). With their “grog” (rum, water, lime) taken in the morning as medicine, sailors were falling out of the riggings drunk by mid-afternoon. Again, better to do that with teeth than without, so the lime juice stayed.

It was another 100 years before a young Scot named Lauchlan Rose patented a way to preserve lime juice without alcohol. That was 1867, the same year the Government got wise to the whole citrus business and mandated that all Navy ships give daily rations of lime juice to everyone on board. Rose’s “Lime Juice Cordial” became ubiquitous almost immediately, surviving over 140 years to present day. It pairs with gin to make a gimlet, and you can generally find a crusty old bottle of it behind most bars… But not mine. Rose’s is now owned by DrPepper Snapple Group Inc., and as such is made like a soft drink with the following ingredients: water, high fructose corn syrup, lime juice concentrate, sodium metabisulfite (preservative), natural flavors, and Blue #1. It is, with it’s lurid chemical florescence, precisely the type of saccharine bullshit that the cocktail resurgence defines itself against.

This puts us cocktail people in a uncomfortable dilemma, a kind of paradox of snobbery: you must use a lime cordial (not lime juice) to make a proper gimlet, but you also must use fresh ingredients. So what do you do? Enter: homemade cordial (I added grapefruits for a specific drink I was making; obviously this is not necessary). And what do you know, not only is it cheap and easy, it’s unbelievably good.

Grapefruit Lime Cordial

Step 1: Aquire a bunch of grapefruits and limes, an equal amount of each. I did 8 each, which ended up making roughly 45 ounces of cordial. Which is a lot if you’re using it 0.75oz at a time.

Step 2: Wash that shit. With a vegetable brush. Even organic citrus usually has food-grade wax on it to preserve freshness, and the peel is especially important here.

Step 3: Peel grapefruits and limes with a vegetable peeler, removing all the skin but as little as the pith as possible. Pile the skins into a large-ish bowl. This peeling business is difficult with the limes because of their thin skin, so this first time I ended up zesting them. I’ve since made a ginger/lime cordial where I said to hell with it and just peeled them, and it worked fine. This is good, because I absolutely despise zesting limes, and exponentially so in large amounts.

Step 4: Measure out 3oz of ultra-fine sugar per grapefruit, and dump it into the bowl. I used 8 grapefruits, so I covered them in 24oz (by volume) of sugar. Using a muddler, or potato crusher, or really any hard flat object, muddle (press firmly) the peels into the sugar, over and over. Your goal is to bruise most of the surface area of the peels, then surround them with the sugar. Cover and let sit on the countertop between 1-3 hours, stirring once or twice (if you want).

One of the charming characteristics of sugar is that it is oleophilic, which means that it likes to bond with oil. So for that hour, the sugar is drawing the naturally occurring citrus oils out of the bruised peels. When you come back, you find some thick, brightly citrus flavored syrup. If you were to stop now, it would be called oleo saccharum (literally “oily sugar”) a totally delicious sweetener used in punches and the like. But we’re not stopping now. Oh no. Strap in, friends, and put your juicing pants on.

Step 5: Juice the now-naked grapefruits and limes, and add that juice to the oleo saccharum. Because the size of the fruits will govern both how much peel and how much juice they give, this ratio pretty much works itself out.

Step 6: Add the mixture to a heat. Just a little, well before boil, just enough so gentle stirring dissolves the sugar. As soon as the sugar has been completely dissolved, remove.

Step 7: Strain out all the solids. The sugar makes it thick, so this is easiest done when it’s still warm. My method is to use a pasta strainer to get the big peels, then a tea strainer for the smaller pulpy business, but you do whatever you want. This is America, after all.

The pulp won’t ruin anything, but it’s better without. Step 8: Bottle, and refrigerate. Once it cools down, it’s ready to go.

Step 9:  Enjoy.

It’s sweet and tart, with an unbelievable brightness from the citrus oil. The sugar more or less neutralizes the bitterness from the grapefruit, giving it a candied feel. Add carbonated water for an amazing soda, or mix with pretty much whatever you like.

BONUS COCKTAIL: I made this for the GQ Bombay Sapphire “Most Imaginative Bartender” competition. I would’ve ordinarily stopped at the basic drink, but that “imaginative” part demanded more. Thus the weirdness. It didn’t win or anything but I was still very pleased with it, and it’s been enjoying orders for 2nds and even 3rds at the bar.

Sailor’s Gimlet
2oz Gin
0.75oz grapefruit lime cordial
0.5oz fresh lime juice

You could stop now, but what makes it way better is:

Rinse the glass with Batavia Arrack if possible; if not, an agricole rum or cachaca. If not, a funky rum. If you have nothing, or nothing but Bacardi, go buy better rum.

You could definitely stop now, but what makes it (whoooaaa!) “imaginitive” is:

Also rinse glass with Green Chartreuse; but first, rim cocktail glass with cinnamon, a pinch of sugar, and shaved macadamia nuts.

It works equally well with rum or tequila. Tweak the recipe or your expectations and you don’t need the lime juice. I find the acidity is nice for balance, but do what you like. And if you find something cool, tell me about it. Cheers.