The 2005 documentary feature Into Great Silence, depicting the the pious ebb of life at France's Grand Chartreuse monastery, tested the credentials of even the most enthusiastic arthouse film rat. Nearly three hours in length, glacially paced, shot sans crew, artificial light, narration or score, it was the culmination of filmmaker Philip Gröning's 16-year quest to record the practices of the world's most ascetic Catholic order, a group of men who live from initiation until death in a snowy stone hermitage in the French Alps, sworn--save for a liturgical chant in a pitch black chapel every night at 12:15am--to silence.
The result was alternately soporific and hypnotic, something that can be said of the eponymous liqueur the monks have produced for over 400 years. It's remarkable that men who have voluntarily abandoned possessions and pleasures to achieve better union with god are also responsible for one of the world's most mythologized, celebrated and sensual high-proof spirits.
Once upon a time, the term cordial described fruit-based spirits while liqueurs were of herbal extraction, but that distinction has long since faded into cocktail history. The liqueurs category now includes an overwhelming variety of recipes of both historic and designer origin, sweetened and flavored by a profusion of exotic ingredients: fruit, spices, herbs, roots, rock candy, chocolate, pine cones, flower petals, green tea, artichoke, chai. A liqueur's alcohol base is derived from grain or fruit, while flavorings are introduced via distillation or the more artisanal methods of infusion or maceration. Additives and colors of all kinds are permitted, and the resulting product is bottled at a modest 40-60 proof. There are noted exceptions, chief among them the 110-proof Chartreuse.
The muted green liqueur gets it natural chlorophyll from an epic list of 130 botanicals--roots, flowers, leaves and other vegetation macerated in alcohol and blended with honey and sugar to yield a startlingly sweet, intense herbal balm. The formula remains a closely guarded secret, virtually unchanged since the Carthusian monks were given a recipe for a "long life tonic" in 1605. The original manuscript is still stored on the premises of the monastery. Purportedly, only two living monks are privy to its full contents at any given time; they, of course, aren't talking.
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Think of this dizzying cocktail in a bottle as a potion rather than a beverage, an alchemical relic of a time when sickness was caused by whispered hexes and capricious spirits, and cures sprouted from the soil. The flavor is simultaneously hot and sweet, medicinal to some, tasting strongly of anise, fennel and clove. Consumed chilled to blunt the sweetness and permit the aromatics to lead, this volatile, 55%-alcohol bomb will get you cross-eyed, jubilant and a little high. It simultaneously soothes and inflames the passions, without the gritting of teeth and toxic embarrassment of a Red Bull and vodka. Chartreuse appears in a number of Toulouse-Lautrec-era mixed drinks, featured alongside elite cocktail components like house-made bitters, falernum and sweet vermouth. A straight pour is best, but two parts Chartreuse to one part extra-dry champagne--add a half-second shake to release a bit of froth--will purge, or delight, the demons within. Chartreuse is also available in an 80-proof saffron-tinted yellow and a ravishing, limited-availability VEP (Vieillissement Exceptionnellement Prolongé), or exceptionally long-aged in oak casks.
Squid Ink knocks back the bourbon in the next Drink Me.
Find Chartreuse at Wally's Wine and Spirits: 2107 Westwood Boulevard, Los Angeles, California 90025; (310) 475-0606.