Wined Down with Joe Roberts: Chartreuse

By Joe Roberts

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Question: What would Chuck Norris pour himself a glass of when he wants to relax before retiring for the evening (or before he retires the sun so that he can go to bed)? After a busy day of freeing innocent villagers from a remote drug gang’s Nicaraguan jungle prison camp, when he’s done killing every bad guy in an eight-mile radius with a machine gun, machete and decapitating roundhouse kicks to the face, I mean?

I think I might have found the answer.

And while it’s not wine, it’s distilled from wine alcohol, has enough sweetness to woo the ladies, enough bite to scare off a cobra, and a background story filled with enough political intrigue that it could substitute for a season of Game Of Thrones, minus the chain mail (and the nudity — we are talking about a drink made by celibate monks here).

More importantly for wine lovers, it has more than enough aromatic complexity to beguile the geekiest of wine fans.

Meet Chartreuse. Yeah, I’m talking about the only liqueur to have a color named after it. But before you get all wine-snobby and turn your nose up, take a lesson in coolness from what might be the only really badass liqueur on the planet.

Equal parts booze, herbs and awesome, Chartreuse is the drink that Sir Henry Stanley guzzled in the African bush on his way to rescue Dr. Livingstone, and it’s what French badass Charles de Gaulle spiked his chocolate with each evening before devising ways of kicking Nazi asses out of his country’s colonial interests during World War II.

Chartreuse’s market is growing by 25% annually, spurred on by a current love affair with bartenders (some have gone so far as to tattoo the logo on their arm) — a love affair that spiked on the cocktail market about three years ago and is showing no signs of slowing down anytime soon. While it certainly is mixer friendly, real badasses will just give it a chill and then drink their Chartreuse straight up, like a good Cognac.

The stuff has a convoluted history: the recipe for an "elixir of long life" was presumably entrusted to a Carthusian monastery in Vauvert, France in 1605 by François Hannibal d'Estrées, a marshal of King Henri IV’s artillery unit. It took their monks over 100 years to figure out how to even make the stuff from the 130-some-odd herbs it called for (an apothecary in their Grenoble monastery finally cracked the code in the 1700s). Before long, the demand for it as a means to get buzzed outpaced its original purpose as a medicinal elixir.

The French Revolution followed in 1789, and all the religious orders – including our elixir-brewing eremites — were booted out of the country. During this not-such-a-great-time-to-be-a-monk, the secret Chartreuse elixir manuscript found its way though various hands to the fine wine haven of Bordeaux, where it was given to a pharmacist…who ended up not being able to make the stuff. So he bequeathed the recipe back to the monks when he died in the early 1800s. Following along so far? Good…

The 1900s weren’t much kinder to these guys: the French nationalized the Chartreuse distillery in 1903 (presumab

ly because they were perturbed that Russian tsars were guzzling it at state functions), forcing the monks to flee to Spain to make their favorite drink. Meanwhile, the nationalized version back in France went bankrupt trying to produce it (my guess is that the monks cursed them with their badassness), after which the official French trademark was purchased by Chartreuse sympathizers who gave it back to our intrepid brewers in the late 1920s.

Now returned to France, the monks started up production in a distillery in Fourvoirie…which was promptly destroyed by a landslide. (You didn’t know the life of a celibate recluse was so dangerous, did you?) But even Mother Nature couldn’t stop Chartreuse — undaunted, the monks picked production back up at Voiron in the 1930s, where they still produce the liqueur today (though with much more state-of-the-art distillation and bottling equipment). But given the history, they might want to invest in military-grade laser weapons so they can fend off asteroids, invading alien races or whatever other disaster is waiting to befall them.

The recipe for Chartreuse is still based on the ancient manuscript, and it’s still a matter of some intrigue; the exact details are apparently known in their entirety to only one, two or three of the monks at any given time (and that number changes depending on which source you ask). It now comes in two main versions: Green and Yellow, and wars will probably eventually be fought over which one is better. The Green is focused, wildly aromatic and deliciously herbal (think sage, fennel, anise, cloves and pine), while the Yellow is full of licorice and honey notes, with hints of saffron, and is the sweeter and milder of the two. Each will set you back about $59 a bottle.

Real badasses will want to check out the VEP (Vieillissement Exceptionnellement Prolongé) versions, the result of a small percentage of Chartreuse production aged in oak casks, available in Green or Yellow. Each VEP comes in a reproduction of the bottles used in 1840, individually numbered with a wax seal and encased in a fitted wooden box (these run about $152 per bottle).

The VEPs are like a concentrated shot of badass — they’re Chartreuse on steroids. The Green VEP is intensely concentrated, with earthy, woody and cinnamon notes complimenting flavors of anise, licorice and enough dried herbs to fill a natural pharmacy. The Yellow VEP is viscous, smooth and full of honey, white flower, citrus and sage aromas, all floating on top of an intense cedar-box backbone.

A serious spirit to consider if you’re into the aromatic complexities of wine, or political cabals, or both — while also wanting something to put into a cocktail to please the ladies. And nothing quite screams “badass” like getting a wax-sealed liqueur delivered in its own wooden box — apart from having Chuck Norris as your dinner guest, I mean (though he might kick your face in for not leaving him enough of it in the bottle later).

About the Author:Joe Roberts is a certified wine geek, and has been called "an original" by media maven Gary Vaynerchuk, "provocative" by the Seattle Times, and "a Robin Hood in the exclusive world of vineyards and corkings" by The Urban Grocer. His wine knowledge has been tapped by the L.A. Times, New York Times, CNBC.com, Mutineer Magazine, Publix, Palate Press, Mint.com, and Wines.com. You can find Joe regularly roasting wine's sacred cow (and pairing them with robust, obscure red) at the award-winning 1WineDude.com. Follow him on Twitter @1WineDude.


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