It’s no secret that I’m a bit partial to Chartreuse. But despite this green spirit being a necessary fixture on many bartender’s shelves (and ZZ Top writing their own tribute song), many people in this country may only know Chartreuse as a color (if that) and have no clue of its possibilities in a glass. Let’s start by understanding what Chartreuse is, and why this liqueur is so special.

Produced in France by Carthusian Monks, Chartreuse is distilled with 130 natural herbs, spices, and flowers, and the recipe is kept so secret that only two monks in the order are allowed to know the exact ingredients at any given time, each held to a vow of silence. Back when the elixir was first created in 1605, it was intended for medicinal purposes, mostly longevity, which makes sense when you smell it. Thankfully, people back then grew a liking to its flavor in the 17th century, so the enterprising monks began producing it on a larger scale for general consumption. 

In France, Chartreuse is “typically drunk with ice as a digestif,” states Tim Master, who works for Frederick Wildman, the brand’s importer. “It’s a drink for a sophisticated palate, since the layers of flavors keep going and going.” Today, the most prevalent bottles on the market are the original green Chartreuse, and also the yellow bottling, which has honey and saffron added to appeal to a wider audience. What’s ironic is that prior to bartenders geeking out on it, Chartreuse first gained popularity in the US in the 1970s via the Swamp Water cocktail, a summery party drink that spoke to college students of that era. Though one might think that the spirit is almost exclusively sold in cocktails bars these days, Master says around 40% of sales are off-premise in the US.

As for the image accompanying this article, it comes from a recent visit to midtown NYC’s Lantern’s Keep, where I was enthralled to have the unexpected opportunity to taste a very old bottle of this mysterious spirit and travel back in time to a period when the Chartreuse monks were actually exiled from their home country of France to La Tarragona, Spain in 1903, and yet continued to produce the spirit under a different label. Having evaporated somewhat, since Chartreuse does age in the bottle, this one tasted well on its way to cough syrup, but the telltale flavors were still there. Rare antique bottles like this are almost impossible to come by these days, and this one is unfortunately not available for public consumption at the bar.

Thankfully it’s fairly easy to come by Chartreuse in most well-stocked liquor stores, and though I enjoy sipping the green on its own, there are many great cocktails that call for it — with the Last Word being the most popular. One of the simplest applications would be an Old Green Hat, which is essentially an Old-Fashioned made with rye whiskey and a green Chartreuse float. While I don’t expect everyone to love Chartreuse and realize it can be an acquired taste, I’d certainly encourage taking a chance on it, perhaps now with a little more knowledge as to its origin.

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