Chartreuse is enjoying a resurgence lately, with drinks using the liqueur popping up in bars across the country. The liqueur comes in green and yellow varieties, both of which are said to be flavored with 130 different herbs, spices and flowers. Produced in Voiron, France from a mixture prepared by Carthusian monks, the recipe was first given to the monastery in 1605, although the first batch did not come out until 1737. That recipe has long been shrouded in mystery and, to this day, one of the monks who was asked what goes into that base elixir said "hamburger and goat cheese." In other words: we're not telling.
We sat down with Tim Master, director of specialty spirits for the U.S. distributor, Frederick Wildman and Sons, to find out what the monks would say about the spirit and more specifically, why so many people are drinking it today.
"It's all about tradition," Master said, about the mysterious mixture. "We believe that the same [herbs, spices and flowers] are present in both green and yellow, but in different proportions." Yellow Chartreuse includes saffron and honey to boost the yellow color and bring down the proof. Green Chartreuse is 110 proof and yellow weighs in at 80, but Master said the differences don't stop at strength.
"Green is much more complex, more delicate to use," he said. "Yellow has more sweetness. You can be a little more creative. If you make errors with your measurements, [the drink] can still come out."
Master compared Yellow Chartreuse to a simple syrup but with more complexity, adding "a multitude of flavors" to cocktails based on brown liquors in particular, especially when paired with citrus.
The honey comes forward right away in the yellow version, followed by an anisette that balances out the sweetness with that herbal bloom we expect. This one warms the cockles, but doesn't bite back like some digestifs can do. It's smooth and drinkable on its own, with the kind of long finish that makes you want to take another sip, just to figure out what that flavor was.
Jeffrey Morgenthaler of Clyde Common used Yellow Chartreuse in his Norwegian Wood, a cocktail that also uses applejack, aquavit, sweet vermouth, Angostura bitters, and a lemon twist. Those deep, complex flavors play well the honeyed Chartreuse, creating a drink that starts off strong and keeps going. And keeps going. And keeps going.
When asked for a little mixing advice, Master noted that he recommends pairing Yellow Chartreuse with Scotch or bourbon—matching up tannins from barrel-aging and the liqueur's rich spice. Green Chartreuse, in comparison, pairs better with gins and tequilas, since its headier botanicals need a cleaner base to really bloom. Green chartreuse is more herbal, almost mentholated in its immediate heat. It wakes up your sinuses and tastes fresh, like munching on an herb garden. But this isn't rabbit food: Green Chartreuse is deep, almost woodsy, with a brightness that matches its color. We've known bartenders to store a bottle in their freezer for post-supper nips. Don't knock it till you've tried it.
Across the pond, Queen Elizabeth drinks a Champagne and Green Chartreuse cocktail, according to Master. (In San Francisco, you can try the people's version, made with more affordable Cava, Green Chartreuse, and a little maraschino liqueur.) Personally, Master prefers to pour it over his chocolate ice cream or drink it over ice with a little Fever Tree or Tomr tonic.
Despite their differences, Green and Yellow Chartreuse can be paired together, too. A mix of 2 parts yellow to one part green, shaken over ice, is a digestif that Master said has the medicinal qualities for which the monks first brewed the spirit, but the taste profile modern cocktail enthusiasts love.
One of the coolest things about Chartreuse is the way it stands the test of time. For enthusiasts, estate sales, antique stores, and dusty old liquor shelves at the back of side-road liquor stores are the perfect place to pick up a bottle of either flavor.
"Some bartenders go bottle-dusting," said Master, himself a seeker of aged Chartreuse. The flavor and color of the spirit evolve as it ages. "Some of the botanicals can sustain over the years, some change. Yellow ages more evenly [than green]," noted Master, "and those nuances pop out. It can be more appealing to the palate, in some cases."
Don't be turned off if the color of an older bottle is more amber than saffron, Master said. "A 20-year-old bottle kept in a temperature-controlled environment is going to be a beautiful," he said. "If you find it in an old liquor store, buy it. That's going to be a great find."
Whether you drink it over ice or pair it with your favorite bourbon, now might be the time to give Chartreuse a try. The recipe might still be largely secret, but the richly botanical profile will make even the wariest palates sit up and take notice. Or, if savoring isn't your style, Chartreuse is OK with that, too. As Master put it, "Sometimes it's just time to take a shot of green."
About the Author: Lizz Schumer is a the editor of a small newspaper near Buffalo, N.Y. She's the author of "Buffalo Steel" and writes about food and drinks, on a freelance basis. Lizz can be found at lizzschumer.com, facebook.com/authorlizzschumer or @eschumer.