Colour conundrum

A lasting love-affair with Chartreuse

On Wine

This article is taken from the December/January 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

Do you prefer green or yellow? The question is not a trite one. I am not pursuing your preference for ties or socks. Nor am I keen to know which jelly-baby you, as a toddler, always saved for last. Rather, I am curious about your choice, as a tippler, of Chartreuse. It comes in two colours, you ask? Well, yes it does; green Chartreuse, the liqueur most people will have seen, and also yellow, a much warmer, sweeter, softer variant far less common, but far more enjoyable.

The monks of the Grand Chartreuse monastery, credited with inventing this heavenly mixture, wisely chose not to put all their sanguis in one grail. Once the Napoleonic Wars ended and their secret recipe manuscript was restored to them, the monks resolved to create two elixirs for long life and eternal pleasure.

Yet they were not lucky monks. Having been banned from France by the Committee of Public Safety, they were booted out of their monastery again in 1903. This time, however, they bequeathed their medicine to the beau monde of La Belle Époque and thus the love affair with vert ou jaune began.

It is a love that has lasted, outliving two world wars, one mudslide that destroyed the distillery, and even the sinking of the Titanic, where Chartreuse pudding suppers were being served in the first class dining room even as the fatal growler first hove into view. Sadly, some of the saloons that stock Chartreuse, especially the less common yellow, have not survived.

Le Caprice, London’s smallest and most select restaurant, opened by Mario Gallati in 1948 and beloved of Diana, Princess of Wales, Elizabeth Taylor and Mick Jagger, closed its doors during Covid. The bar boasted a wide and wonderful array of aperitifs including the mellow yellow. Its (no longer) resident barmen were adept at magicking all three of the best Chartreuse-based cocktails for mixology mavens to savour.

No one now knows the formula for white Chartreuse. Not seen since 1900, its secret is lost to history

The oldest (and in my humble view the best) is the bijou; gin, sweet vermouth and green Chartreuse combined together, this simple hundred-year-old classic glistens in the glass then rolls crisply around the mouth before disappearing with a botanical flourish. Next, newer and from New York, comes the Naked Famous made up of yellow Chartreuse, Aperol, limes and mezcal. This trendier, spunkier import was popular with Le Caprice’s lunch time barflies, who never seemed to eat any lunch but instead sat sipping away the hour. I tried it once then left it to the fashionable.

The last word should go to the Last Word, a chic and sour blend of green Chartreuse, maraschino, limes and of course, gin. Another export from Uncle Sam, though this time from Seattle, LW represents the acme of alchemy. Both bitter and sweet, it looks, smells and tastes right out of The Great Gatsby.

The brothers guard jealously the secret of their brew. Few know the composition of either green or the lower-alcohol yellow Chartreuse, though these days a limited company, Chartreuse Diffusion, handles their manufacture and distribution. And no one now knows the formula for white Chartreuse. Not seen since 1900, its secret is lost to history. Lost, that is, until the angels smile again on the monks and another manuscript turns up ­— just as one did in 1816.

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