It's Not Easy Being Green

About a year ago, I bought a bottle of green Chartreuse. I bought it because I stumbled upon something called a Bijou cocktail and decided that I wanted to try it.

Chartreuse is a liqueur made by French monks from a secret recipe purported to be hundreds of years old. It's usually described as tasting "herbal", but I find that's about as useful as saying that something tastes like "chicken"; it's the word you use when you can't think of anything else to say. For my money, I find that it's very sweet and tastes strongly of anise (which I don't mind; I like Drambuie, which also has a strong anise flavour) but also has a kind of "vegetable" aftertaste that I find a bit off putting,

So, my first impression of Chartreuse was not favourable. Would it fare better as a mixer?

The first drink I tried was, indeed the Bijou. Bijou is French for jewel and the cocktail's original formulation called for equal parts gin (representing a diamond), sweet red vermouth (representing a ruby) and green Chartreuse (representing an emerald). Hence "Bijou".

This classic formulation has been described as "bombastically herbaceous", which didn't bode well for me.

I won't draw this out much longer: the classic Bijou was pretty terrible. Chartreuse is strong and assertive; if you're not careful it will dominate any drink you pour it into. So my first attempt at a Bijou basically tasted mostly of Chartreuse with a touch of gin. I couldn't even tell where the vermouth was hiding.

So I tried for the Embury treatment again, increasing the gin threefold:

Bijou (Spirit forward style)

  • 3 parts gin
  • 1 part green Chartreuse
  • 1 part sweet red vermouth

This one was...okay. Definitely better then the classic version, but still just okay. One could be forgiven for thinking that I simply don't like Chartreuse. Whenever I drink something like the Bijou, it always tastes to me like there's something missing. I find it tastes unbalanced, like there's an ingredient I forgot to add.

Is there no way to make this liqueur palatable?

Enter the Ghost

I thought there was no salvaging that bottle of Chartreuse until I came across a recipe for something called a Green Ghost:

Green Ghost

  • 3 parts gin
  • 1 part Chartreuse
  • 1 part lime juice

If you read my blog at all you know that I embrace Embury's notion of a cocktail template. In that vein, the Green Ghost is essentially a gin lime sour, but with Chartreuse in the place of the sugar syrup (or, alternatively, a Chelsea Sidecar with the Triple Sec swapped out for Chartreuse).

In any case, it's delicious. I think that lime (or lemon) juice is the missing ingredient to make Chartreuse not just palatable but downright good. Somehow I don't particularly like "herbaceous" on its own, but find it rather pleasant in combination with citrus. In retrospect, this is perhaps not so surprising; gin, an "herbal" liquor if there ever was one, is made much better with the addition of lemon or lime.

The Last Word

See what I did there? The Last Word refers to the fact that this is the last section of this article and also to the cocktail that this section is about. Pretty clever, even if I do say so myself, which I totally am. Here is the recipe:

The Last Word

  • 1 part gin
  • 1 part Chartreuse
  • 1 part lime juice
  • 1 part maraschino liqueur

There's something about "equal part" cocktails that screams Prohibition, and the Last Word is indeed a Prohibition era drink. It likely has something to do with the relatively low ratio of gin; when all you have available is bathtub gin, you don't want it to be the main focus of your cocktail.

It's an easy drink to make if you have maraschino liqueur available, which is not a given; it's admittedly pretty obscure, and smaller liquor stores may not carry it. I managed to snag the last bottle at my local SAQ (Quebec's government owned liquor stores). I'll have more to say about maraschino later; for now, it suffices to say that it's a very sweet liqueur made from distilled Marasca cherries.

As you can see, the recipe is actually quite similar to the Green Ghost, except that part of the gin is replaced by maraschino, thus making it sweeter. The Green Ghost could legitimately be called sour, while the Last Word would probably be better described as tangy. Like the Green Ghost, however, it's delicious.

So, is it worth going out and buying a bottle of Chartreuse just for these drinks? Well, I don't know; it depends on how well you tolerate strong, assertive, unique flavours. Certainly a small bottle will go a long way; you never need to add very much to drink for the taste to come through. If your local liquor store has a mickey available, that would make a decent purchase. In any case, it's always good to try new things.

Happy mixing!