YOU PEER THROUGH the glass at the emerald liquid shimmering within, turning the very sun green with envy as it filters through the bottle to your gleaming eye. This grass-colored liqueur, with its bracing, vegetal taste and mulish kick, called Chartreuse after the Carthusian brothers of your order, is the closest thing you’ll ever experience to a magic potion.
The closely guarded formula contains 130 plants, herbs and flowers — some from your monastery garden, some from the surrounding countryside and some from far across the world. The secret plant parts are macerated and then aged with pure distilled alcohol in oak barrels for five years before being bottled.
Everyone describes it differently, and no one can agree what it tastes like. The bright, sweetish, clear liqueur is the color of a cat’s eye, and it hits the tongue like a fairy spell, otherworldly and arcane, floral, grassy and herbaceously vibrant. With each sip, you’ll chase an entirely different elusive flavor around with your tongue — peppermint, hyssop, cardamom, arnica, cinnamon, and on and on — depending on your mood, the weather, the time of day or your train of thought.
Your godly brothers at the monastery love to drink it, but only a few know what it contains. The formula itself was written on that tattered piece of manuscript given to the monastery by the brother of the king’s mistress in 1605. It is a mystery how the sword-swinging Francois Annibal D’Estrees came by the formula for an “elixir of long life” that he swore would preserve the youthful gleam and bounce in any man or woman long past their usual due. He certainly didn’t write it; it was cobbled together by some anonymous alchemist searching for the key to eternal existence, which — given the wrinkled faces of many of your fellow brothers who also are enthusiastic imbibers — it clearly is not.
But the liqueur itself stands the test of time, tenaciously refusing to fade away even as its caretakers will one day be persecuted across the Pyrenees to Spain in 1793, when the bloody Jacobin Revolution evicts God himself (and all his religious orders) from the New Republic. The secret formula will be passed from hand to hand, even to Napoleon and miraculously back again, somehow remaining a closely guarded secret. Production will cease and restart several times over the centuries as the monks and their divine elixir ride out the tumultuous events that will shake Europe to its foundations.
Some day even further in the future, say, as far forward as 2022, the liqueur still will be produced at the original Grande Chartreuse monastery, quietly compiled by the only two monks at any given time who know the formula. So let all those pretenders with their ersatz green digestifs squawk all they like. This liqueur, Chartreuse, always will be special, a distilled bottle of the true Old World, unique enough to have a color named after it.
Not that the formula won’t change a bit over the years. The 1660 version you make now is a bit medicinal, perhaps, in that bracing way that an “elixir of long life” rightly should be. But it’s so tasty, even that way, that many drink it for pleasure, and because no one wants to say no to their customers, the flavor will be sweetened and improved over time.
In 1840, your Carthusian brothers will develop two formulas: the more bracing, higher-alcohol, green Chartreuse, and the softer, smoother yellow version. It will be sought for desserts and for after-dinner sips, and paired in cocktails such as The Last Word (a Prohibition-era concoction made with maraschino liqueur and lime) or the Bijoux, where its jewellike hue combines with the equally brilliant vermouth and gin. And while it might not make you live forever, it will, like a true magic potion, help you enjoy the time you have.