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.