First published in the Irish Times, Saturday, 27th February 2016.
“With a pint of green chartreuse ain’t nothin’ seems right You buy the Sunday paper on a Saturday night”
So growled Tom Waits in Til The Money Runs Out, on his 1980 album Heartattack and Vine. Chartreuse has that sort of reputation. Strange then that it was created by an order of contemplative monks, and that French children are fed a drop of the Elixir Végétal de la Grande-Chartreuse dissolved on a sugar cube to ward off sickness. At a heart-warming 69 per cent alcohol, it must kill all known germs. This elixir comes in a small phial, encased in its wooden case. The monks market it as a cordial, a liqueur and a “very effective” tonic on their website. The standard liqueur is slightly less potent than the Elixir at 55 per cent.
Chartreuse traces its history back to 1609 when, it is said, a secret recipe was handed to the Carthusian monks by a marshal in the army of King Henri IV. It eventually found its way to their headquarters in the mountains of Haut-Savoie, a beautiful region an hour’s drive east of Lyon. There, the apothecary succeeded in creating an elixir from some 130 herbs and spices. The exact recipe remains a secret to this day, shared only by two monks. Eventually, seeing that it had become popular as a drink, the monks created a less potent liqueur for use as a beverage. As you can also find a similar liqueur known as génépi, traditionally made by farmers in the region, it is possible that the story of Henri IV was invented along the way.
The order was expelled twice from France, once during the French Revolution and again in 1903. On the second occasion, they continued to produce the liqueur in Spain, only returning, with tacit state approval, in 1929. In their absence, an inferior copy was offered by the new distillery owners in France.Today, the complex blend of herbs is mixed at the monastery before being taken to a distillation plant in the nearby town of Voiron. You can visit the museum, and take a very pleasant walk around the high walls of the monastery, but entrance is forbidden. There are signs outside requesting visitors to keep quiet.
There are two versions of Chartreuse, green and yellow, each flavoured with a different selection of herbs. The yellow is sweeter, flavoured with saffron, and lower in alcohol. The complex flavours of the green are intensely herbal, medicinal and powerful. There is a sweetness that never cloys; it lingers and develops on the palate, lasting minutes. It is one of the only liqueurs that ages and improves in bottle and gives it’s name to the colour chartreuse.
The monks produce six different herb-based liqueurs, my favourite being the green Chartreuse VEP or (Vieillissement Exceptionnellement Prolongé) which is the standard version aged for a longer period in oak casks. It makes an excellent digestif served chilled after dinner. Green Chartreuse is back in fashion, as a drink with water, or as an ingredient in cocktails. Skiers in the resorts above the Haute-Savoie warm themselves up with a verte chaude, made with one part green Chartreuse to three parts hot chocolate, finished with a layer of cream – a French take on an Irish coffee.The Last Word, a Prohibition era cocktail, was recently revived by bartender Murray Stenson in Seattle. It consists of one part each of gin, lime juice, green Chartreuse and maraschino liqueur, shaken with ice and then strained into a martini glass.
The final tasting note goes to Anthony Blanche in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited: “Real green Chartreuse, made before the expulsion of the monks. There are five distinct tastes as it trickles over the tongue. It is like swallowing a spectrum.”
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