There really are only two things you need to know about the alchemists of the Middle Ages: They wanted to turn ordinary items into gold, and they wanted to live forever. Needless to say, neither was a viable career path. Though the world has since moved on from the transmutation of lead and "elixirs of life," the recipe for one such potion has endured.
In 1605, Carthusian monks in the Order of Chartreuse in Vauvert, France, received a century-old manuscript that detailed a tonic of 130 blended herbs, but few could understand its complexity. It wasn't until 1737 that an apothecary at the Grand Chartreuse monastery solved the puzzle and Elixir Végétal de la Grande-Chartreuse was ready for prime time.
Weighing in at a whopping 71% ABV, the Elixir was both a medicine and a digestif, intended to be consumed after meals to cut through the richness of French cooking and settle the stomach. It also was widely abused, and in 1764 the Brothers released a lower-octane version for those wishing to take it as a beverage.
The true story behind the manuscript, the lengthy passage of time between 1605 and 1764, and Chartreuse's production since remains a mystery. One thing's for sure: The monks aren't talking—they can't. Carthusian monks are cloistered, sworn to a life of prayer, solitude, and secrecy. Like Trappist monks with beer, they make alcohol to protect their way of life.
Fortunately, Brandon Chrostowski, departing GM of L'Albatros and man behind EDWINS Restaurant and Leadership Institute, has been to the distillery in Voiron and is more than willing to talk.
"Brothers Dom Benoît and Jean-Jacques are the only two people on the planet who know the names of all 130 ingredients in Chartreuse," declares Chrostowski.
This shroud of secrecy begs several questions. What happens to Chartreuse if both Brothers get taken out by a beer truck or meteor? And how does one import something into the United States without disclosing its ingredients?
"The Brothers receive 18 tons of herbs annually, which they grind themselves and send to Voiron in numbered packages," Chrostowski adds. "Every day they come down the mountain to tend to the distillation. The herbs are macerated and distilled in two huge copper stills, the sweetness is rectified, and the Chartreuse aged in the largest neutral oak barrels you've ever seen."
Green Chartreuse (55% ABV) is aged for a minimum of five years and gets its color from the chlorophyll of a final herbal infusion that occurs following distillation. The Brothers monitor much of the hands-off production from their chambers at the monastery, not terribly far from the old French farmhouse where Chrostowski first sampled Green Chartreuse after dinner with friends. "It was an authentic moment and there was no better spirit to represent it," he says.
That's not to say that Chartreuse is a dessert drink: Both decidedly alcoholic and profoundly savory, it is a liqueur by legal definition only, and its flavor profile is perhaps the only thing more complex than its storied history. One moment you're tasting anise, the next thyme, and the next fennel.
"It's the one spirit that always outsmarts me," he says.
Recipe: The Last Word
¾ oz. Green Chartreuse
¾ oz. Plymouth Gin
¾ oz. Lime juice
¾ oz. Luxardo Maraschino Liqueur
To a Boston shaker filled ¾ with ice, add the above ingredients and shake to chill and combine. Strain into a cocktail glass and serve.
Where to Try Chartreuse
L'Albatros, 11401 Bellflower Rd., 216-791-7880, albatrosbrasserie.com
Hodge's, 668 Euclid Ave., 216-771-4000, hodgescleveland.com
Velvet Tango Room, 2095 Columbus Rd., 216-241-8869, velvettangoroom.com
Where to Buy Chartreuse
Bank Street Wine & Spirits, 1303 W. 6th St., 216-579-1313
Solon Wine & Liquor, 33760 Bainbridge Rd., 440-248-9923, solonwineandliquor.com
Minotti's, Multiple locations, minottis.com
Ryan Irvine writes about cocktails at Intoxicating Liquors (http://intoxicatingliquors.com).