Letting Loose with Chartreuse
Looking for dubious herbal remedies in the 1600s? Get thee to a monastery! Leave it to monks to invoke the Holy Spirit in liquid form. This bewitching elixir, named after the Grande Chartreuse monastery in Voiron, France, was born from many monks’ medicinal muddling. Back in 1605, the rumors say, François Annibel d’Estrées gifted the Carthusian monks of the Grande Chartreuse Monastery, Voiron, an ancient manuscript containing a recipe for long life.
The complicated piece of apothecary confounded the fathers for many years. In fact, it wasn’t until 1737 that Father Jérome Maubec finally perfected it. They’ve kept the secret ever since: only two monks at a time know the exact botanical composition of Chartreuse. Each is responsible for half of the recipe.
As a medicine, Chartreuse’s original form packed a powerful 138-proof punch. The diluted versions of Green and Yellow Chartreuse (110 and 80 proof respectively) are far more mellow. Especially when served as a tisane dissolved in hot water over a sugar cube.
If you could eat the Alps, you’d understand Chartreuse. It’s an herbal explosion that quickly overcomes the senses and is wont to linger on the taste buds. Not for the faint of tongue, this liqueur has never quite managed to shake its medicinal connotation, provoking some to disgust and others to delight.
While the official ingredients remain unverified, regional studies confirm the presence of hyssop, a common cough syrup element, and angelica, used to clear the chest, among other floral specimens used in various Alpine eaux-de-vies or génépi. For many years, pharmacies stocked the small, wooden-cased bottles of the elixir as a herbal remedy for the common cold. If stubborn enough, you can still ask a pharmacist to special order you the tincture…though no promises he won’t give you an odd look.
How should you take your medicine? Some argue straight, cold, in a glass…particularly if you spring for the VEP variety, which retails at a hefty $140. If your budget is less lofty, bottles of the green and yellow remedies cost less at closer to $50 per bottle. With it’s springy and prominently piney flavors, just one drop of Chartreuse will change the profile of a cocktail, though perhaps not in an easily identifiable way.
Conceivably the most well-known mix employing Chartreuse is the Last Word, an easily spotted, Prohibition-era drink mixed with equal parts gin, lime juice, Green Chartreuse, and maraschino liqueur that is a standard for most bars. If you seek a more artistic experience, head down to Pouring Ribbons and view their collection of antique Chartreuse bottles or look for it in various cocktails (like the Marigold) at Rebelle on Bowery.