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As good as it gets: Chartreuse

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In this marketing driven world, the constant need for “new and improved” often wars against the “tried and true”. But while we are always tempted by the exciting new experience, the latest flavor craze or the dazzling new brand that everyone is talking about, there should always be room for the enduring classics, the icons, the standard bearers, the wines and spirits that have achieved the rare feat of being so good they need not change---indeed, so good they should not change. Here’s to the spirits that are as good as it gets.

Chartreuse Elixir Vegetal
Perhaps it was the way it was created, with slow, infinite patience in the quiet solitude of a monastery high in the Alps near Grenoble in France over a period of many years, until the perfect balance of botanicals was reached and the hushed and cowled monks were satisfied they had found the ideal elixir, a spirit so invigorating and restorative in its powers, so rewarding in its aromas and flavors, as to be an apparent boon from god.

Weary travelers, the weak, the infirm and afflicted were pleased to find the stimulating spirit awaiting them at the monastery of the Carthusian order in the French Alps, and the fame spread throughout Europe. There were many brews and potions of the time that gained notoriety and prestige, but few lasted over the centuries; even fewer retained the traditional formulas over the intervening years. Chartreuse was one of those precious few.

It wasn’t an easy survival, however; the original recipe dated back to 1605, but religious and political schisms caused the monks to be ejected from the monastery properties twice, and it was not until the 1900s that they returned (from Spain) to resume production in the original distillery.

Fortunately for consumers today, the Carthusian monks faithfully maintained the ancient recipe and the essence of the liqueur remained true to its origins, an irresistible aromatic blend of herbs, flowers, seeds and spices---reportedly 130 of them--- steeped in a pure high-grade brandy base. Chartreuse has the delightful nature of being harmonious and contradictory at the same time: fiery, yet turning to profound warmth; bold, yet subtle and complex; austerely bitter, yet rich and sweet.

Even the color---and chartreuse the color was derived from Chartreuse the elixir---is distinct, unique, water-pale, luminous, glowing with yellow-green fire.

There are five versions extant that bear the name of Chartreuse: the original---the Green---a potent and assertive liqueur with 55% alcohol; a lighter-colored, lower- alcohol version introduced in the 1930s---the Yellow---with brighter but less pervasive vegetal aromatics, more sweetness in the finish, and a more tolerable 40% alcohol; the VEP (Vieillissement Exceptionnellement Prolongé—or ‘prolonged aging’), where both the Green and Yellow are aged in wooden barrels for extended periods for more intense flavor development; and the limited-release Elixir Vegetal de la Grande-Chartreuse with massively concentrated vegetal flavors, at a potent 68% alcohol, or 138 Proof, and bottled in small, wood-enclosed containers.

Chartreuse is served either chilled or at room-temperature, as an aperitif or a digestif, and is frequently utilized in cocktails for its intense, distinctive aromas and flavors. The Last Word, a well-known cocktail in the heady days of pre-Prohibition and revived in popularity by veteran mixologist Murray Stenson of Seattle, is a delectable combination of equal parts dry gin, Green Chartreuse, maraschino liqueur and fresh lime juice. Any good bar or restaurant should be able to mix up a creative cocktail using Chartreuse, though; as savvy bartenders know, and many consumers over hundreds of years can attest, Chartreuse is as good as it gets.

Chartreuse
Chartreuse Media Commons

Chartreuse

The original Chartreuse Green, a profound herbal and floral liqueur created by the monks of the Carthusian monastery in the Savoie mountain region of France. Originally created to offer its restorative powers to weary travellers who stopped at the monastery, this became one of the most heralded of aperitifs and digestifs, a herbal concoction of immense intensity and power.  It is easily the most iconic of its category and is enjoying newfound popularity in the cocktail culture, used in many mixological creations.

Chartreuse, a color and a flavor
Chartreuse, a color and a flavor Media Commons

Chartreuse, a color and a flavor

The color of Chartreuse liqueur was unique and so distinctive and memorable, that the liqueur birthed a color: chartreuse.  Chartreuse---the color---is derived from the original Green Chartreuse (Chartreuse Vert), although in the 1830s a new Chartreuse was released, the Yellow Chartreuse (Chartreuse Jaune) with a bright, intense yellow hue, a lower alcohol base, and a different blend of botanicals.

Chartreuse poster from the 1800s
Chartreuse poster from the 1800s Media Commons

Chartreuse poster from the 1800s

Chartreuse has been celebrated and consumed for hundreds of years, as shown by this poster from France.  Chartreuse was virtually in every boite and bar, lounge and cafe and restaurant throughout France, and widely available in all of Europe.  Considered a rarety for many years in the United States, it has now reached its greatest level of popularity, both for singular consumption and for its use as a primary cocktail ingredient.

Chartreuse Massif
Chartreuse Massif Media Commons

Chartreuse Massif

The rugged, craggy Chartreuse Massif, with the city of Grenoble tucked into the valley far below. These mountains are harsh but transcendentally beautiful as well, and the Carthusian monastery was ideally situated to offer respite and shelter to the weary pilgrims that passed by.  Eventually, the liqueur became more famous than the monastery, but visitors still seek out both the holy place and the distillery where the famous liqueur originated.

Carthusian Monastery
Carthusian Monastery Media Commons

Carthusian Monastery

The monastery of Chartreuse was remote, but willingly performed one of its sacred duties, to succor weary travellers on pilgrimages.  They were famed for their hospitality, and not least of which included a dram of the invigorating and restorative secret elixir they concocted in their distillery made of hundreds of local botanicals gathered from the nearby fields and slopes.

The Carthusian distillery
The Carthusian distillery Media Commons

The Carthusian distillery

Chartreuse was originally created by the monks in the high mountains of the Savoie in France, but the monks were forced to leave during religious schisms and relocate to Spain.  Many years later they returned. This is the original method of distilling Chartreuse liqueur in old copper alembic pot stills, the traditional slow process...because the monks had plenty of time.

A field of gentian
A field of gentian Media Commons

A field of gentian

Of the many ingreidents that make up Chartreuse, one of the essential ones is gentian, a powerful, intense and exceedingly bitter alpine herb often used, both in antiquity and in modern times, to flavor the bittered liqueurs, aperitifs and digestifs favored by Europeans, especially the French and Italins.  This foundational herb was gathered by the original monks of Chartreuse to macerate in their famous elixir.

Chartreuse intensified
Chartreuse intensified Media Commons

Chartreuse intensified

Of all the versions of Chartreuse...the Green, the Yellow, the V.E.P., this is the most intense, the most concentrated, the most powerful in alcoholic strength. It is released only in these tiny bottles encased in wooden containers.  Rarely seen and understandably expensive, the concentrated essence of Chartreuse under long aging is as powerful and expressive as a fine perfume.

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