Kurt’s Chartreuse Challenge

I know I’ve spent a great amount of real estate here on amari…and why not? The flavors that we get to experience through established and homemade amaro is what has created such a stir and enthusiasm for herbal flavors and DIY liqueurs. We’re all artisans and explorers in the great herbal liqueur adventure. Keeping with the spirit of adventure, I would like to move on to something different, and yet, perhaps not. If we’re talking “herbal”, then we must eventually cross paths with a mysterious liqueur produced in France…Chartreuse.

Ah, Chartreuse! That odd green liqueur surrounded by such secrecy and mystique. In case you don’t know, Chartreuse is a (naturally green) liqueur produced by the Carthusian Monks in the Grenoble region of France. It has been produced (in various locations) from a secret recipe handed down since the early 1700’s. Part of the mystique surrounding Chartreuse stems from its secret recipe of 130 herbs macerated in alcohol which is reportedly known only by two (or is it three?) monks at any one time. It’s reported to be the only liqueur with a green color that results entirely from its natural ingredients, i.e., no dyes. It was considered an herbal remedy at one time (though I don’t recall which maladies it was supposed to alleviate – digestion?). It is also a somewhat pricey liqueur. If you can pick up a 750ml bottle for less than $60, snag it!

Chartreuse is a really unique liqueur. It is very herbal, very vegetal. At first taste, Chartreuse tastes very much like its color – green. At my first experience, I couldn’t tell if I was tasting cut grass, pine needles or lemon verbena. (Actually, none of those individual flavors were apparent by themselves because my first taste occurred long before I had an inquisitive palate). In addition to its herbal bonafides, Chartreuse is incredibly intense. It’s 110 proof to start! Take a half jigger of Chartreuse and add it to two jiggers of gin (one of my favorite ways of enjoying it – the Green Martini), and your drink still tastes very much like Chartreuse. It helps an expensive bottle of Chartreuse last a reasonable amount of time. The other classic Chartreuse cocktail is the Bijou: 1 part Chartreuse, 1 part Gin, 1 part sweet vermouth. What’s interesting about either one of these is that the characteristic Chartreuse flavor refuses to be dominated. It is very much “present and accounted for”!

In Seattle, Chartreuse is not only expensive, but it is also a rare on-the-shelf bottle at liquor and grocery stores (or the few non-superstore liquor stores that still exist here). Consequently, for this Chartreuse enthusiast, there are lots of dry spells where I have to do without.

Being the DIY kind-of-guy, I began thinking about creating my own version of Chartreuse. I scoured the internet looking for recipes that might give me some idea of what to use, but they are not only very few and far between, some of them have very questionable ingredients – both in taste and in safety. The safest recipe I found was in an old Treatise on the Distillation of Alcohol book from the 1800s found in Google books, but it contained a few ingredients that weren’t very easily found (like Balm of Gilead, or genepi, a variety of wormwood). Alas, even it also contained arnica flowers which aren’t really considered safe for consumption.

I wasn’t easily dissuaded, however. I forged on, determined to create a copy of Chartreuse, and I am happy to report that I am 70% of the way there! What’s interesting is that the recipe I’ve discovered came about because I focused on ingredients that would keep the result green. The big problem is that my recipe isn’t entirely reproducible in its proportions.

That’s where my challenge comes in. What follows is the best list of ingredients and their approximate amounts that I can devise without the testing and assistance of any of you readers who would like to contribute your lab time. If you enjoy Chartreuse as much as I do and want to figure out the definitive recipe for reproducing it (as close as possible), let’s put our heads and palates together. I truly believe it can be done, because I am so close. I’ve enjoyed a green Martini made with my DIY Chartreuse, and it is SO close! If I can get other experienced palates to contribute to or modify my basic recipe, I think we could finally have THE DIY recipe that would provide us enthusiasts the Holy Grail, so to speak. Here it is…

Kurt’s DIY Chartreuse Recipe – made with tinctures.

Part 1 – create the essence using 75% ABV tinctures.

1. 80 ml of Wormwood tincture (note: if you can create a tincture using fresh wormwood leaves instead of dried wormwood – you’ll go a long way towards matching the original Chartreuse flavor, but it isn’t a make-or-break situation. Dried wormwood will also work.
2. 40 ml of Angelica tincture
3. 2ml peppermint tincture
4. 3ml lemon verbena tincture
5. 2ml juniper tincture
6. 10ml sage tincture
7. 8ml rosemary tincture
8. 8ml saffron tincture
9. 0.5ml clove tincture (substitute allspice for a more faithful rendition)
10. 3ml lemon peel tincture
11. 4ml star anise or fennel seed tincture
12. 4ml mace tincture
13. 1ml cinnamon tincture
14. 1ml thyme tincture

Part II – Oak chips (the oak barrel)

1. Prepare the oak solution per the Valencia Orange recipe. Add 20ml of this mixture to the Chartreuse essence.

Applying oak barreling or aging may seem out of step or unnecessary, but trust me – it makes a huge difference if you’re wanting that je ne sais quois of Chartreuse!

Part III

1. Honey or Simple Syrup – add enough honey to make the resulting mixture moderately sweet
2. distilled water – add 1/2 the amount of distilled water as sweetener.

Part IV
Adjust to taste.  Extend as desired.  Create a base spirit by diluting 1/2 liter of Everclear or a similar neutral spirit with water and sweetener (preferably honey) to around 50-55% ABV for authenticity, or use a nice neutral vodka at 40%. Bear in mind that vodka will be further diluted by the addition of honey or simple syrup.  Carefully add this to your Chartreuse essence, 1/2 cup (4 oz) at a time.  Once the flavor begins to weaken, STOP! Or don’t stop – it’s up to you.

Get this right! If you have the opportunity to taste this alongside real Chartreuse, use that opportunity to add ingredients (or new proportions) that you think will match those flavors in Chartreuse.

Part V
What is NOT IN Chartreuse (according to my palate)!

1. Orange Peel
2. Neroli Oil (in fact, do not use any essential oils – only tinctures)
3. Vanilla – this is disappointing because vanilla fixes EVERYTHING!
4. Food coloring – okay, this isn’t a big deal. If you want to add a drop of green, I won’t tell!

And that’s it. If anyone wants to start here (or revise my recipe completely), please do so and check back. If we can arrive at this destination, it will be well worth it!

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8 thoughts on “Kurt’s Chartreuse Challenge

  1. Hi Kurt, it’s been a while. I’m still enjoying the amaro I made last year. I may be up to accepting your Chartreuse Challenge in the near future, but in the meanwhile, I wanted to think about what may be missing in the formula you provide. In your narrative, you mentioned pine needles, but I didn’t see them in the ingredient list you created. I happened to make a pine needle tincture this morning, and then I remembered this July post. I thought about pine needle tincture as an ingredient for the challenge. I took a picture of it in this evening’s end of day light, and I hope I can figure out how to attach it. In my home, I use this as a cough remedy, but I could see it being the missing “green” ingredient in Chartreuse, too. I am not familiar with the flavor of Chartreuse, so it is hard for me to say, but I would love your thoughts on this additional ingredient.
    …How can I send you the picture?

  2. Hi Jackie,

    Very nice to hear from you! You’re right, there are no pine needles in the recipe I posted, but I mimicked them with the rosemary and juniper together. In the past, I have taken the new growth needles from fir trees here in Washington and made a tincture with them which was very aromatic and pungent. It does have a shelf life, unfortunately! I found that out the hard way. It also tended to overpower whatever I was making (mostly because I think I macerated them way too long in the alcohol).

    But I accept your suggestion. Let me try again with some pine needles. If you have further suggestions or pictures, please feel free to email me at kkeydel@hotmail.com. Thanks in advance!

    Best,
    Kurt

    • Interesting. I use white pine, preferably new lighter green needles in 100 proof vodka. For medicine, I do six weeks, for this application, maybe a few days, tasting along the way, would do the trick. I’ll let you know, when I get to it, or if I think of anything else.

      As I looked over your list one last time before hitting send here, a couple of ideas popped into my head:
      Lemon balm
      Lemongrass
      Violet leaf
      Linden flower
      Grapefruit peel

      Far out, but like I said, I don’t think I’ve tasted Chartreuse.
      Consider these “food for thought. “

  3. Hi Kurt,

    It’s been a long time for me too! I almost forgot how much I enjoyed your blog. It is so awesome how much enthusiasm you have for these mad scientist experiments and how willing you are to share your findings with everyone. I had a blast with the DIY Amaro experiment; actually just enjoyed a glass 2 days ago and it is still as delicious as I remember.

    I ran out of Everclear after 7 batches of DIY bitters (Mole, Grapefruit, Yuzu, Meyer Lemon, Celery, Rhubarb, Orange), so I need to bite the bullet and order some more online. This Chartreuse post is giving me great incentive to do it.

    I’ll leave you with one question until I replenish my supply: where in the world would one find fresh wormwood?

    Thanks!
    Michael

    • Hi Michael…nice to hear from you. It sounds like you’ve been enormously creative!

      I think wormwood is considered a ground cover plant much like sweet woodruff or pachysandra. Where I live (in Washington State) it grows wild in some areas and is considered an invasive plant. I believe you can purchase plants from online nurseries (though they won’t ship to Washington for the previously mentioned reason).

      In place of fresh wormwood, you may be able to purchase wormwood extract or tincture at an herbologist of your choice. It might be a better flavor alternative to dried wormwood.

      Sorry I can’t be of more help on this.

      Cheers!
      Kurt

  4. I know I’m late to the party here, but I’m really enjoying your posts on amari. I’m a big fan of alcoholic infusions.

    I really admire your attempt to push on toward Green Chartreuse. That said, you’re embarking on a challenging quest indeed. Green Chartreuse supposedly contains 130 herbal ingredients. In 1903, a commercial company bought the assets of the Carthusian abbey (which had been nationalized by the French government after the Carthusians had been expelled), and tried to produce their own version. After nearly 25 years of experimenting, they failed to reproduce Chartreuse to the satisfaction of consumers, and went bankrupt. Ultimately the Carthusians were invited back.

    The original recipe is from around 1600; the Carthusians tweaked it for about 130 years before they formalized it into the liqueur we know today. So what you’re attempting is rather ambitious.

    Nonetheless, even if you don’t nail Green Chartreuse, you may come up with something equally delicious, and equally interesting. So I’m excited to see where this goes!

    PS As you mention, Wormwood (Artemisia absinthium) is invasive in many climates. It’s less of a pest here in the Southwest than up north, but it’s even naturalized a few places in California. Not surprisingly, it is easy from seed. So I’d suggest that commenter Michael simply grow his own; it’s perennial, and rather tenacious!

    • Funny, I never realized that I wasn’t clear on the amount of neutral spirit to use! I will revise this post, but for a quick answer, I would add the above tincture ingredients to a liter of a sweetened base at 50% ABV.

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