Build-A-Bar: Green Chartreuse

Green Chartreuse is one of my favorite liqueurs. Not only does it have a long and storied history within the cloistered walls of the near-silent Carthusian monks, with links to Alchemy and a near-conspiratorial secrecy, it's also one of the most singular and intriguing liqueurs available.

Its history dates back to the 17th century, and a small Carthusian monastery near Paris. Originally distilled as a healthful tonic, the (semi)original formula still exists as Elixir Vegetal de la Grande-Chartreuse. It's sold in small, wooden-cased bottles, boasts a throat-scorching 138 proof, and is not available in the U.S.

Of course, as frequently happens with alcoholic tonics, it was quickly discovered that this elixir tasted pretty damn good, and was sought after as a beverage in its own right. The monks set about crafting a new version of their elixir for casual consumption. What we know as Green Chartreuse was born in the late 18th century.

Green Chartreuse is an herbal liqueur. It is sweet and spicy at the same time, with strong vegetal notes and undertones reminiscent of tea. There's also an earthy duskiness running under all of the more assertive flavors, providing an anchor. It improves with age, in the bottle or in barrels, deepening its flavor while mellowing slightly. I've had the opportunity to sample barrel-aged Green Chartreuse, and it was one of the most unique drinking experiences I've ever had.

Due to its fiery alcohol content and assertive flavors, there is a tendency in cocktailing to use chartreuse in small ratios, with other ingredients there to cut through its powerful nature. It's used primarily as a flavor enhancement, rather than the focus of a cocktail, adding a hint of smoky, spicy intrigue. It does this admirably.

It goes well with bright flavors; citrus and Chartreuse are a natural match. It's also strong enough to stand up to other assertively flavored spirits. One of my favorite Chartreuse cocktails, and a good introduction to the spirit, is the Last Word. It also requires gin and maraschino liqueur, which you might have around if you've been following along. While this cocktail sits on the sweet side, it also boasts plenty of bright acidity and that captivating Chartreuse earthiness, making for a supremely balanced cocktail.

The Last Word

.5 oz Gin .5 oz Maraschino Liqueur .5 oz Green Chartreuse .5 oz Lime Juice

Combine all ingredients, shake with ice, and strain into a cocktail glass. I typically serve this without a garnish. My version augments this recipe slightly, downplaying the maraschino just a bit, and adding ½ an ounce of lemon juice. To my taste, this balances the drink a bit better, taking the sweetness down a peg and increasing the acidity. Otherwise, I find the drink a bit saccharine.

The vast majority of Green Chartreuse cocktails I've encountered use the liqueur in similarly small ratios to the whole, in an effort to contain the somewhat violent nature of this most enigmatic of beverages. As I was working on my own recipe for this post, I decided that I wanted to buck that conventional wisdom. Instead of cloaking it with layers of other flavors, allowing only hints and suggestions of its true power to come through, I decided to let Chartreuse shine, in all of its fiery glory. The trick was deciding what to pair it with. While I was glorifying one strident spirit, I thought, I might as well throw the rulebook out entirely and pair it with another. I've decided that Chartreuse and Mezcal are soul mates.

St. Bruno's Fire

1.5 oz Green Chartreuse 1.5 oz Del Maguey Chichicapa Mezcal 2 dashes Orange Bitters

Stir Chartreuse and Mezcal together and serve in a small glass, adding bitters just prior to serving. I had meant to serve this in a snifter, to control the rising vapors, but couldn't find mine. This is a heady cocktail, both in flavor and in alcohol content. It boasts a deep and complex flavor profile, ranging from smoky and earthy, with plenty of spices, to tea-like, chocolaty, and even minty. The orange bitters are the only thing that lightens this drink, offering slightly bright, floral hints that do nothing to cut through the other elements, merely offering something pretty on top.

My wife kept complaining that this wasn't a summery enough drink, and she's probably right. If you want a summery drink, go for the Last Word. If you want something challenging, rewarding, and delicious, why not succumb to the heat with St. Bruno's Fire?

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Nicholas L. Hall is a husband and father who earns his keep playing a video game that controls the U.S. power grid. He also writes for the Houston Press about food, booze and music, in an attempt to keep the demons at bay. When he's not busy keeping your lights on, he can usually be found making various messes in the kitchen, with apologies to his wife.
Contact: Nicholas L. Hall