Chartreuse: Taste the Shades of Green
You don’t sit down at a bar and order a shot of Chartreuse, like you would Fireball. You don’t pound it or shoot it (though I’m sure some do), you savor it, you analyze it, swish it around in your mouth to decipher the mysterious herbal components that emerge as it warms or chills. Not unlike wine, there are connoisseurs of Chartreuse—almost fanatics of the green drink.
Seattle's best-known association with the liqueur might be Murray Stenson. His addition of the Last Word–a Prohibition-era Chartreuse concoction with gin, lime, and maraschino–to the cocktail list at Zig Zag Cafe caused a resurgence that swept the country. But it all started with an age-old manuscript and an order of monks in France.
The recipe, introduced to the monks in 1605, is guarded. Only two monks of the Carthusian order know the combination of the 130 bits of greenery it takes to make this liqueur. Originally called “The Elixir of Long Life” at 138 proof, it was thought to have medicinal properties. The long, colorful history of the liqueur is ripe for a medieval-fantasy novel rendition.
Bar manager Jamie Boudreau of Canon, got as close as one can get without taking a vow of silence during his visit to the distillery in Voiron, France. This may sound like a tall tale, but Boudreau's got some guts, so I wouldn't put it past him: On his tour he apparently took a wrong turn and happened upon an open door. He peeked in and saw piles of bags; a strong aroma drifted his way. Boudreau was soon shooed along with a warning that the herb room was strictly off limits. He still wishes he'd had just a little more time to investigate, just a few seconds more and the mystery may have unraveled right in front of him.
Suffice to say, Boudreau is a huge fan: “I don’t like finishing a meal without having Chartreuse. That’s my dessert,” he says, “try it with a little bite of chocolate, it’s heaven.” So what is it about this liqueur that creates this obsessive love affair? Since when do we here in the Northwest indulge in something with vague ingredients like “plants”? Knowing the varietals, origins, and the exact region/farm/acre where our greens were picked is practically a local sport. For this drink, we make an exception; the mystery is all a big part of the adoration. And like so many spirited developments, it seems the popularity of this quaff comes back to the bartenders and chefs who make it available to us civilians.
Chartreuse's specific fan base isn't easy to pinpoint, but the super hardcore have tattoos of the label. They drink it with their eyes closed to really taste it. Not to steal absinthe's lexicon, but Chartreuse lovers' devotion verges on green mania.
And I have to admit, I can’t stop thinking about it since I first tried it with Boudreau. He gave me three tastes: traditional green at 110 proof, from the tap at 90 proof (Boudreau adds a little extra water to the tap variety to let the herbal flavors really shine) and a genepi liqueur (an herb from the Alps in the same family as wormwood). As you sip you start to wonder: What’s that herb? Oh, it’s spicy, now sweet. Is that tarragon, no, anise! Must taste it again. I need to know where these flavors are coming from. Sage? It's different every time. These monks are brilliant. Someone please get me that recipe. Or just another shot of Chartreuse—that’ll do.
Some might find Chartreuse “challenging,” as Anthony Bourdain did on The Layover in Seattle. Whereas on the next bar stool over, Matt Dillon called it the “greatest stuff on earth.” Maybe partly for that euphoric buzz that comes along with it. I did notice a warm, everything-is-going-to-be-fine feeling come over me. Boudreau did seem exceptionally happy after our session and advises a shot before bed for vivid dreams. I'm a convert. I think I may have to drink it everyday.
Find the shades of green at some of these Chartreuse-loving establishments:
Along with Chartreuse on tap, find ten different expressions of the liqueur on the captain’s list, many are rare and won't be a common find at other bars in the city. Taste the mellowness of the yellow or the VEP versions aged in oak, which allows the sugars to crystallize causing a dryer mouth feel.
Head chef and "booze purist" Jack Spiess prefers a Chartreuse VEP neat on the side of chocolat chaud. Find the three most popular kinds here: green, yellow, and VEP. Spiess says most of the clientele at the French bistro prefer the liqueur as a digestif; when in France, right? But expect to see a new Chartreuse cocktail on the list this summer.
Zig Zag Cafe
The locale of the comeback of "The Last Word." Stenson is no longer here to mix it up for you, but I'm sure Erik, Ben, and the crew can do it justice.
Where Bourdain, Dillon, and Hines had a post-Canlis drink on The Layover. Bourdain was a little bit of a big baby about the bitterness, while Dillon drank it down with a serene smile.