Two Monks and a Centuries-Old Recipe: The Peculiar Truth About Chartreuse

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Chartreuse is a spirit with a secret. Recipes for both the green and yellow varieties are closely guarded by two monks, the only people with access to a 400-year-old manuscript that lists the 130 plants and herbs used in the French herbal liqueurs. The tradition is passed down to new generations.

“Green Chartreuse is the conversation starter behind the bar, full of rich history and a memorable flavor,” says Mickey Mullins, bar manager and assistant general manager at The Bower in New Orleans. “Stories of monks and flowers intrigue guests and staff, luring you to the classic green bottle and leaving you with your own story to tell or forget.”

The green liqueur as we know it has been around since the 18th century, when monks living in a Chartreuse monastery in Vauvert, a suburb of Paris, discovered the right mix of plants and herbs to create what was then named the “Elixir of Long Life.”

The recipe for green Chartreuse was based on a manuscript that the monks received in the 1600s. But it was likely written by an alchemist much earlier. Yellow Chartreuse was introduced in 1840. Sweeter and lower in alcohol than the green bottling (43% alcohol by volume, or abv, compared to 55% abv), it is also made using a secret recipe of unique plants.

Today, the liqueurs are still made by the Chartreuse monks using the same recipes at a distillery in Aiguenoire in southeastern France.

The rich hue of Chartreuse “transforms any cocktail into a work of art,” says Camille Wilson, author and blogger at The Cocktail Snob. According to Wilson, the green liqueur has herbal and floral notes along with natural sweetness.

“It tastes a little like licorice and has a slight spice to it,” says Wilson.

Daniel Barragan, mixologist at Cantina Rooftop in New York City, says the liqueur’s unique taste helps balance the flavors of any drink it’s mixed with, whether it’s spicy, bitter or sweet. Making cocktails with green and yellow Chartreuse is a “delicate and delicious balancing act,” says Mullins.

Here are some ways to use them.

Green Chartreuse has been made for hundreds of years and its recipe has been passed down for generations
Green Chartreuse has been made for hundreds of years and its recipe has been passed down for generations / Photo courtesy of Fredrick Wildman

Make a Last Word or Bijou With Green Chartreuse

The Last Word is a well-known classic cocktail that features green Chartreuse, says Todd Johnston, beverage director at Marsh House and L.A. Jackson in Nashville. He says green Chartreuse brings together and balances the flavors of the bitter and tart maraschino, bright and fresh lime, and gin’s botanicals.

“I love a Last Word and would recommend it to anyone trying to make a simple cocktail at home,” says Johnston. “Since it is an equal part cocktail, you can always play around, subbing in different ingredients like rye whiskey instead of gin.”

Another classic green Chartreuse-centric cocktail is the Bijou, says William “Wildcat” Greenwell, co-owner and beverage director at Mister Mao in New Orleans.

With its “herbaceous bitter complexity,” Johnston says, “green Chartreuse brings it all together with savory herbaceous richness with a nice balance of sweetness.”

A bottle of yellow Chartreuse
Photo courtesy of Fredrick Wildman

Mix Up a Classic Alaska Cocktail With Yellow Chartreuse

The martini family of cocktails includes this brightly colored classic. It features two parts Old Tom gin to one part yellow Chartreuse, plus a dash of orange bitters. The yellow Chartreuse plays the role of vermouth, sweetening and balancing the boozy herbal notes of the gin.

Add a splash to sparkling wine or soda

According to Greenwell, adding a splash of green Chartreuse to a glass of sparkling wine as a Kir Royale variation is a simple way to give the liqueur a try.

“It brings a little mysterious swagger, earthiness and subtle sweetness with a refined medicinal edge,” says Greenwell.

Another option is to mix either green or yellow liqueur with seltzer or tonic water to make a lighter, lower-alcohol drink, Wilson adds.

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Pair It With Other Herbal Flavors

Green Chartreuse lends a bitter and refreshing taste to botanical liquors like gin and mezcal, says Barragan.

“I like to keep it paired with other herbal flavors,” he says. “I think it helps its unique taste to stand out more, but it’s also fun to pair with something stronger or smoother to see what I end up with.”

Greenwell says his favorite way to use green Chartreuse is in a Mao’s Garden, a cocktail he makes at his restaurant. The drink combines green Chartreuse with gin, grapefruit juice, elderflower liqueur, lime juice and two dashes of bitters.

Inside the cellar where Chartreuse is made
Inside the cellar where Chartreuse is made / Alamy

Drink It With Hot Chocolate or Root Beer

It may sound like an unlikely combination, but Greenwell says green Chartreuse goes well with root beer. “In fact, a shot of green Chartreuse with a root beer chaser is a bartender secret,” he adds.

Mixing green Chartreuse with hot chocolate to make a Green Chaud is another unexpected but classic use for the spirit, Barragan says. The drink is popular at French ski resorts.

Keep It Straight

Sipping green or yellow Chartreuse straight, chilled, or over ice as an after-dinner drink is a simple way to enjoy the liqueurs. And for newcomers, it’s a great way to get a sense of their flavors.

“You can really enjoy it in all its glory and take it all in from the smell to the taste,” Barragan says.

Then, Mullins says, you can be adventurous and add it to your favorite cocktails.

Everything You Need to Enjoy Chartreuse

Published on October 1, 2021
Topics: Handpicked