You may have heard of this vibrant French liqueur, but now we’re going to teach you how to use it
Gin is, with the possible exception of vodka, the most universal of spirits when it comes to mixing and has been warmly embraced by the creators of cocktails for nearly two centuries. Many of these cocktails consist of everyday ingredients, but others – delicious as they are – might contain more esoteric ingredients that require a special purchase. Not only is this a tad frustrating just to make one or two drinks, but it can result in obscure bottles collecting dust on the shelf.
Chartreuse is an example of such an ingredient, but hopefully this article will
help the reader to embrace the wider potential of the spirit and dust off some
of those bottles.
Chartreuse is a French herbal liqueur that is made by distilling botanicals. The origins of its recipe go back to 1605 and to this day the liqueur is made by Carthusian monks.
There are three main types of Chartreuse that are more widely available and accessible today: Green Chartreuse, Yellow Chartreuse, and Élixir Végétal. In addition to these, there are a number of limited editions available, as well as a high-end VEP range for both the yellow and green varieties, which has undertaken extra-prolonged ageing. The latter are a sort of “distillers cut”, with only the best distillates going through to be aged for the extra time. Both retail for upwards of £100 – and that’s when you can even get hold of it.
Let’s start with the most widely known variety: Green Chartreuse, which is bottled at 55% ABV. It is potent with a herbal leafiness upfront and an earthy spice on the finish, accompanied by a warm, lingering glow. It makes a pleasant digestif and is a delicious shot served ice-cold from the freezer, but can also be enjoyed in a range of cocktails.
The Last Word
This is probably now the most famous Green Chartreuse cocktail. It originated at the bar of the Detroit Athletic Club, where it first appeared on the menu in 1916.
Equal parts (25 ml each): dry gin, Green Chartreuse, Maraschino liqueur, fresh
Add the ingredients to a cocktail shaker and shake vigorously with ice, before straining into a cocktail glass.
In 2021, Hernö released its first bottled cocktail which was based on The Last Word: “The Word”. Its version omitted the lime juice (which is difficult to stabilise in the bottle), but drinkers could add their own lime juice to transform it into a “Last” Word.
Other variations on The Last Word are plentiful: you can swap out the Maraschino for Cointreau or another orange liqueur to create The Written Word, and The Spoken Word uses rye whiskey instead of gin.
French for “jewel”, the Bijou was possibly named for its gem-hued ingredients: gin (diamond), Chartreuse (emerald), and red vermouth (ruby). But perhaps that’s looking a little too far into it!
There have been a variety of recipes for the Bijou over the years, some of which omit Chartreuse completely. The version noted below comes from the 1900 version of Harry Johnson’s Bartenders’ Manual.
Equal parts: gin (Johnson calls for Plymouth), Italian vermouth (aka red vermouth), Chartreuse (green)
Johnson suggested adding the ingredients to a glass that had been three-quarters filled with crushed ice, before stirring and serving in the same glass. Garnish with both an olive and a cherry.
For an easier alternative, simply stir or shake the ingredients, strain into a cocktail glass, and garnish with a cherry and a lemon twist. Some authors prefer a drink that is a little lighter on the Chartreuse, but I find that the equal parts work just fine. This cocktail is a brilliant way to appreciate both the liqueur and your choice of gin; the gin’s profile – citrus, floral, spiced – really makes a difference to the drink.
A tropical thirst quencher with a touch of sourness that embraces the winning combination of Chartreuse and pineapple.
Equal parts (25 ml): dry gin, Green Chartreuse, pineapple juice, fresh lime juice
Shake the ingredients and pour into a tall, ice-filled glass, before topping up with sparkling/soda water. For a sweeter version, top up with sparkling lemonade and, for pure decadence, use sparkling wine.
Introduced around 1840, this is a sweeter and less alcoholic version than the Green, made with a slightly different formulation that includes saffron and honey.
Depending on how old your bottle is, it will be either 40% (pre-2019) or 43% ABV. Seen as a more approachable version of Chartreuse, it is slightly more menthol in character. Here are some cocktails that use it.
There are two main variations on this cocktail. The first is by Jacques Straub on page 17 of his 1914 book, Drinks:
1 dash of orange bitters, 1/3 jigger* Yellow Chartreuse, 2/3 jigger (Old) Tom gin – Shake
* Modern bartenders can use measurements of 20 ml and 40 ml respectively.
This cocktail is said to have been named for the Alaska (Klondike) Gold Rush in the late 19th century, which is reflected in the drink’s striking golden hue. A variation, Nome, which replaces half of the Yellow Chartreuse with fino sherry, is also named after a key location in the Alaska Gold Rush.
The 1930 Savoy Cocktail Book by Harry Craddock has a less sweet version:
¾* dry gin, ¼ Yellow Chartreuse – Shake
* This equates to 45 ml dry gin, 15 ml Yellow Chartreuse
Comparing these two variations, I was expecting to prefer the drier Savoy version, but in reality the added botanical complexity in the Straub version provided by the Old Tom gin (I used Hayman’s) really adds something to the drink, as does the orange bitters. The Savoy version is more reminiscent of a standard Martini, albeit slightly honeyed.
Élixir Végétal de la Grand Chartreuse (Élixir)
This variety is bottled at a hefty 69% ABV and is not designed to be drunk on its own. Of all the Chartreuses, it is probably the closest to the original medicinal tincture, which was perfected in 1764; according to Chartreuse, this recipe has remained unchanged for more than 300 years.
One of the suggested serves for the Élixir Végétal is to sprinkle it on a sugar cube
and then munch away – and very tasty it is, too! – but for my money, I’d rather have an Élixir Martini.
50ml dry gin (ideally straight from the freezer)
Add a few drops of Chartreuse Élixir to a chilled cocktail glass, pour in the ice-cold gin, and enjoy.
The drink is an enchanting shade of pale green, just perceptible, but delightful. It is a small but powerful Martini with a complex, dry bitterness and the tiniest touch of sweetness at the end of the finish.
Gin and tonic
A splash of Green Chartreuse in a gin and tonic is a lovely way to complement other flavours, especially when using a herbal tonic such as Fever-Tree Mediterranean Tonic or Three Cents Aegean Tonic. The liqueur adds a touch of sweetness, but also a slightly grassy spiciness, similar to that of meadowsweet or bison grass. Yellow Chartreuse is delightful when combined with bitter lemon or lemon tonic: the extra tartness from the lemon helps to balance out the honeyed nature of the liqueur.
Both Green and Yellow Chartreuse can be an extremely welcome addition to any Negroni, although the best result comes from mixing them in a White Negroni: 25 ml gin, 25 ml dry vermouth, 15 ml Suze and 10 ml of either Yellow or Green Chartreuse.
Finally, Chartreuse can be used as a flavoursome substitute to sugar syrup that also adds complexity. For example, in a Gin Old Fashioned, Green Chartreuse adds a gentle menthol note and a fresh leafiness that complements the juniper well. In a similar way, Élixir Végétal can be used as a substitute for cocktail bitters.
Meanwhile, a Tom Collins made with Green Chartreuse instead of sugar syrup is more tart than normal, but the gentian adds a refreshing leafiness that works well with the lemon notes.
Hopefully this article has helped to illustrate to you the potential of the marriage of gin and Chartreuse, and has given you some inspiration to make your friends green with envy!