Among the plethora of spirits that populates the modern bar, few have as long or mysterious a history as Chartreuse. This funky herbal liqueur has been produced by monks in France for more than 200 years, using a recipe that dates back to the 16th century. The two main varieties of Chartreuse are known by their colors — green Chartreuse and yellow Chartreuse. But what’s the difference between the two?
The Carthusian Order of monks was founded by St. Bruno in 1084, in the Chartreuse Mountains from which the order (and later the liqueur) took its name. In 1605 a friend of the order presented the monks with an interesting gift: a manuscript containing a recipe, developed by an alchemist in the 16th century, for something called the “elixir of long life.” The recipe called for 130 herbs, plants, and flowers. It was so complicated that it wasn’t until much later, in 1737, that the monks developed a practical method for making it.
Like a lot of alcoholic creations, the elixir that the monks made was originally intended to be used medicinally. But it proved to be so tasty that even those who were not sick wanted to drink it.
In 1764, the monks created a milder version of the elixir with a lower ABV — the one we now know as green Chartreuse. The yellow variety of Chartreuse, sweeter and milder still, made its appearance in 1838.
The original formulation of Chartreuse, as dictated by the 1605 manuscript, is still sold by the Chartreuse brothers as the Elixir Végétal de la Grande-Chartreuse. It comes in at a powerful 69 percent ABV and is sold in very small bottles — although good luck finding any.
Much more common are the green and yellow varieties. (The brothers made a variety known as white Chartreuse from 1860 to 1900, which is sadly no longer available.)
Green Chartreuse, with an ABV of 55 percent, is the bolder of the two spirits. It starts out rather sharp and herbal, settling into a warm, almost minty finish.
Yellow chartreuse, with an ABV of 40 percent, is milder. It retains all those complicated, herbal flavors but has a sweeter, mellower profile.
Thanks to its bold, distinctive flavor and its memorable hue, green Chartreuse is a star when it comes to cocktails. The best-known green Chartreuse cocktail is the Last Word, made with equal parts gin, green Chartreuse, Maraschino liqueur, and fresh lime. It makes an excellent addition to a Daiquiri. It appears in the Bijou, which is essentially a Negroni with Chartreuse in place of Campari, as well as the Chartreuse Swizzle, a modern classic that combines green Chartreuse with something it pairs surprisingly well with: pineapple. For that same reason, Chartreuse works beautifully in tiki-inspired cocktails like this.
Cocktails with yellow Chartreuse are a bit harder to find. There’s the Champs-Élysées, which is made with brandy, lemon juice, and bitters, and the Daiquiri-esque Daisy de Santiago. There are also plenty of modern creations like this cocktail that mixes yellow Chartreuse with tequila and matcha.
If you aren’t feeling up to mixing, you could always just take your Chartreuse straight. As legend has it, Hunter S. Thompson liked to sip Chartreuse in a hot tub to get his creative juices flowing. Russian Tsar Nicolas II insisted on always having Chartreuse on his table. Why not introduce a bottle to yours?