Tuesday, August 18, 2015

The Rad Trad Reviews: Chartreuse

If a visitor to le Grande Chartreuse in France knew nothing of the traditional silence practiced by the Carthusian order and was ignorant of the spirituality of St. Bruno, he would certainly be forgiven if he assumed the meditative quiet kept by the monks was a quality imparted to them by a strange green liqueur produced domestically.

Originally produced in 1605 as a remedy, Chartreuse quickly gained favor throughout Europe as both a digestif and a post-dessert liqueur. Production of the genuine article ceased when the French government banned religious orders in 1901. St. Bruno's sons only returned to France in 1929 and the Grande Chartreuse was not again inhabited until the Vichy regime. A gin-based Prohibition martini, the "Last Word," popularized Chartreuse briefly in America. When the drink died in America and when the aristocracy died in Europe, Chartreuse's presence faded into the shadows of stale bars and one-off restaurants. It is enjoying a minor revival in popularity thanks to attention from the Wall Street Journal and a few Seattle barmen who use the green potable in their concoctions. Avid readers may have noticed Anthony Blanche drinking it with Charles Ryder over dinner in Brideshead Revisited or found Agatha Christie's petite Belgian detective with a glass in the evening. It is not cocktails or books that interest the Rad Trad, however, but Chartreuse itself. 

The label on the back recommends the drink be served cold, even "on the rocks." Liqueurs, not unlike mature whiskeys, have a simple formula: alcohol by volume equals flavor. The monks of the Grande Chartreuse, if only the three monks who actually know disparate pieces of the recipe, bottle Chartreuse at 57.5% ABV. Icing a drink that strong is not a mortal sin, but it should be. When the Rad Trad tried Chartreuse he put it and a wine glass in the ice box for a few hours, went to lunch, read a book, and then opened the bottle.

Upon pouring, one finds chilled Chartreuse a viscous liquid with the consistency of a soft syrup. To the nose, the cold substance emits a soft and vaguely sweet aroma, not too strong. Chartreuse, like a fine wine or an aged cigar, transitions in flavors and scents both as the drink sits in the glass and as it tunnels down the throat. Immediately on the palate, the tongue detects a sweet licorice, peppermint, and pure black and white pepper notes. Chartreuse is spicy without being harsh. It is sweet without tasting too much like candy. It is a blast of flavor, but never overwhelming; it is always perfectly proportioned. Let is roll back on the tongue and slowly trickle down the little red lane. The sweetness vanishes as the drink departs the taste buds, leaving behind an intense finish of pepper, mint, and a hint of cinnamon.

Is the Rad Trad bloviating his description of Chartreuse's initial taste? Hardly. 130 alpine herbs are macerated twice over to create this liqueur, the second of which gives the drink its distinct green color.

A pale shade of apple green in natural sunlight.
As the drink warms in the glass the pepper dissipates slightly while the herbaceous notes intensifies on the nose: fennel, anise, mint, cinnamon, vanilla. While less sweet warm than cold upon drinking, Chartreuse leaves a sweeter finish as it nears room temperature. After a few sips a sticky, syrupy sheen develops on the tongue and roof of the mouth which makes talking pleasantly difficult when drinking Chartreuse. Your mind wants your mouth to imitate the monks in their silence and to have another go. Breathing after a drink of Chartreuse reactivates the peppermint and pepper notes from the beginning, creating a pleasurable warmth in the mouth. It is an aesthetic experience to be sure.

I have one complaint about this delicious delicacy. Chartreuse lies, and it lies very well. Although a 115 proof drink, one never tastes an alcoholic burn or feels the least hint of intoxication after drinking two wine glasses of Chartreuse. After the second glass, one stands up and is greeted by an unexpected bought of vertigo, which is far removed from tipsiness or drunkenness. Someone who gluttonously imbibes several servings of Chartreuse without pause is far more likely to nap dreaming blissful dreams than to descend into a smashed stupor.

The Absinthe Drinker
by Viktor Oliva
One might say that Chartreuse is everything absinthe wants to be. I had the displeasure opportunity to taste absinthe last weekend. I am of the opinion that if something costing $70 a bottle is tasteless when taken straight, it is not worth buying. Absinthe is liquid licorice with the sugar missing (perhaps the bohemians should have spent less money on opium so they could afford to distill a drink properly). Despite the anise and fennel scent, it lacks any herbal flavors when consumed. On a hunch, I took a match to this 62% ABV creature and let it burn for a moment before snuffing it and tasting again. "It's much smoother now, less bitterness, too," I told my host. "Is it because you've burned out the alcohol?" he asked. "No," I responded. "I think the chemicals and sulfur in the match improved the flavor." I didn't even get to see the Green Lady.

Chartreuse needs no matches, no chemicals, no water, no sugar. It is perfect as the monks made it.

Chartreuse can be had for about $60 a bottle plus taxes Stateside. If news of Chartreuse's quality ever reached garrulous ears, I would expect a price increase. As is, Chartreuse is very affordable as a one time purchase for good occasions. It will be worth the money if you savor every sip, if you do not swallow it immediately, but instead let it dance on your tongue from front to back, let it roll under your tongue, sit, and trickle down your pipes. It sounds mad to drop $60 on a drink that is not wine, but this is worth it.

An entirely orthodox drink.


  1. Would love to try that one day. Don't know if the nearby Pleterje charterhouse makes it.

  2. I will need to search for some. $60 is an amount I only spend on exceptional wines or whiskeys.

  3. One of these days I will also try the Yellow Chartreuse, although its added sweetness, lower alcohol content, and unattractive color make it a less urgent buy. "It is like swallowing a spectrum."

  4. I imagine the experience of playing Settlers of Catan can only be improving with Chartreuse.

  5. Just bought a bottle today. Your post reminded me of it!

  6. Dear Rad Trad. There is such complexity and joy to be had in sipping this. On your recommendation, The Bride got ABS a bottle for his Birthday and he had some last night.

    Thanks for the review - and ABS thought he could write about wine - it is spot on.

    And, like a really high quality cabernet, this must be sipped slowly to let the qualities of the product communicate with one's own taste buds; ABS knows this prolly sounds pretentious, but there truly is communication, a conversation, twixt a quality product and what God blessed us to possess in our senses.

  7. Great review. This liqueur was a favourite of my grandfather and dad so I've been keeping the tradition going for forty plus years. In my opinion it tastes better when it is served at room temperature. It's very complex and chilling subdues some of the intensity. The recommendation to serve chilled is relatively new . Now it is stronger than so if you prefer a less alcoholic drink there is a yellow(jaune) version and various limited editions. Do enjoy it though as it's special.