Elixir of Life: Chartreuse
These elixirs have in common a certain corner of the colour wheel. From glen-green to electric yellow and the shades in between, one tonic in particular may uphold their particular alchemy. (Alchemy: a science that has inadvertently produced more than one material colour, though never yet gold.)
Chartreuse, rhymes with obtuse, refuse, recluse, abuse – “What the fuck is it?”
“The only liqueur so good they named a colour after it.”
Joaquín Simó, partner and bartender of New York City-based watering hole Pouring Ribbons, recalls the quote from Quentin Tarantino’s movie Death Proof on a rainy day in early February. The establishment boasts a collection of rare Chartreuse bottles in part obtained through “liquor store spelunking” by bartenders with a “dusty bottle fetish.”
It’s a liqueur claiming historical consequence and medicinal purpose. Concocted from 130 botanical ingredients, Chartreuse’s potion masters resemble cloaked wizards in garb alone. The Carthusian monk order, based in the French Alps, first produced Elixir Vegetal in 1737, working off of an ancient recipe from a “16th century alchemist with a great knowledge of herbs and the skill to blend, infuse, macerate,” claims Chartruese’s website. While you can now Google the distillate in its trim wooden box packaging and have it shipped around the world, the monks first travelled around the French countryside on horseback, selling their stock for the medicinal properties of its vegetal medley. Simó corroborates the ancient wisdom: “You have a bee sting and you put a couple drops of Elixir Vegetal on and it’s good.”
The monks may never have intended to drink the incredibly alcoholic tincture, but plenty of other Europeans did. Recognizing the market potential, the Carthusians adapted the recipe in 1764 to create the 110 proof (compared to the elixir’s 138) Green Chartreuse. This “aggressively herbaceous” green, as Simó describes, was later followed by specially aged V.E.P. bottlings and an even milder honeyed yellow variety.
Today, Green and Yellow Chartreuse can be found on the shelves of even moderately stocked bars in over 100 countries. But every bottle originates in the herb room of its Carthusian distillers. Specifically, Simó says, only two monks at a time have access to the recipe and know all 130 of the ingredients. (More people have access to the Prime Minister’s nuclear letters of last resort.)
Originally harvested from the terrain of 18th century France, the Carthusians now obtain the herbs, roots, barks, and spices in bulk. The savvy might track the orders and determine what goes in to the yellow-green mixture. The savvy would be deceived, as the monk’s over-order ingredients that they do not use. However, one defected monk has confirmed, Simó tells me, that the backbone of the herb-green nose-full you sip is génépy, an alpine flowering plant.
Ice skater Peggy Fleming would probably never have seen the plant, obscured as it is by winter’s blanket, when she picked the colour for her costume at the 1968 Olympics in Grenoble. She learned of the region’s monks and their famous liquer and had her mother make a chartreuse rhinestone-studded costume. Doris believed that that particular green would subliminally cause French audiences to root for her daughter. It was the first Olympic games ever broadcasted in colour. Fleming won gold.
For Simó, the colour recalls certain cars—perhaps the rare chartreuse Porsche 911 from 1972, of which only 10 were built—and avocado-shaped retro kitchen clocks. After half an hour of Chartreuse chat, he presents me with two tiny cordial vessels of the stuff: Open vials of tonic with viscous drops clinging to the inner glass. I try the Yellow Chartreuse first, its saccharine sweetness leaves a trail down my throat. In the Green Chartreuse, I take a sip of the liquefied French mountains, its astringent yet pleasant herbaceous warmth cleansing its honey cousin away.
Simó explains that when you taste an alcohol with a long finish, you’re actually experiencing the vapors that float from the stomach back up through your airways.
A spirit, indeed. An elixir of life.