Why Yellow Chartreuse Should Be the Secret Weapon of Your Home Bar
On a recent afternoon at Le Coucou, Manhattan’s most fashionable restaurant, beverage director Aaron Thorp stood in his petite bar room describing how he came to preside over the most impressive collection of Chartreuse in the United States.
Sifting through the 15 choices on his menu, Thorp showed off a kingly three-liter bottle and said that the only goal of chef Daniel Rose was, very simply, to make sure Le Coucou’s bar program matched the Parisian classicism of its kitchen. “It’s wasn’t necessarily that it was cool,” Thorp said of the commitment to this herbal liqueur. “It was just French. He didn't feel like there was a more fun way to be more French.”
“Fun” may not be the first word that comes to mind when describing the Carthusian monks who have been producing Chartreuse in the French Alps since the 1700s—give or take interruptions brought about by the 1789 Revolution, the reign of Napoleon, or the occasional mudslide. At the Monastery of the Grand Chartreuse, only two monks are entrusted with the precise recipe of 130 herbs, spices, and flowers macerated to make the stuff.
The green version, with its witchy luminosity and 110-proof bite, has always enjoyed particular distinction as a traditional after-dinner drink in its native land, and it’s also beloved by cultists to the point of becoming a pop-culture trope.
The cocktail renaissance, however, has greatly benefited these monks. Green Chartreuse is the key ingredient in the Last Word, a tangy lost classic rescued from the dustbin of the history around 2004. Made with equal parts Chartreuse, gin, lime juice, and maraschino liqueur, the recipe and its many variants stimulated bibulous demand and continues to pique public curiosity. In 2016, Green Chartreuse sales in the U.S. (which is the top export market) were up 15 percent, according to Tim Master, the director of specialty spirits at Frederick Wildman and Sons.
But—this is curious—Yellow Chartreuse, the younger, less glamorous sister of the iconic Green is increasing even more quickly, up 18 percent over the same time.
Yellow Chartreuse is softer and smoother than green, which used to be a strike against it, at least in some circles. “Yellow chartreuse is the Domino’s Pizza of chartreuse,” snobs one blogger. “It’ll get the job done, but it’s not a culinary marvel.”
Those perceived flaws have now come to be seen as advantages. For Joaquín Simó, whose Manhattan bar Pouring Ribbons has had as many as 13 Chartreuses on its menu, its notes “are mellower and richer than Green Chartreuse’s aggressive herbal approach. This allows it to play a little nicer with others, as no one wants their drink’s modifier to dominate the base spirit.”
Today, bartenders tend to use the liqueur’s violet florality and saffron aromatics to make it work with gin, as in the Alaska cocktail on the menu at Slowly Shirley, an old drink that has all of seriousness of the classic martini with none of its stern astringency.
“It’s slightly more accessible,” Thorp said, citing its “lower alcohol content and slightly sweeter profile.” Yellow Chartreuse is merely 80-proof, and its sweetness has a pronounced honey characteristic, which is also helping it get ahead these days, considering the increased popularity of whiskey, mescal, and scotch. “Honey goes well with brown spirits,” Master observes. “The honey and the tannins balance each other.”
Like the Yellow Rose of Texas served at Chicago’s Violet Hour and the Naked & Famous invented by Simó in 2011, Thorp’s Yellow Cactus Flower uses Yellow Chartreuse to aid and abet the agave-based funk common to mescal and tequila. It acts on the tongue and the mind like a sophisticated spring break in a glass.
For that sort of pleasure trip at home, see the recipes below to get acquainted with the newest centuries-old drink.
2.5 oz. gin
0.5 oz. Yellow Chartreuse
2 dashes orange bitters
Stir well with ice. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass and serve.
Yellow Cactus Flower
From Le Coucou, New York
1 oz. Suze
0.75 oz. Buenbicho Mezcal
0.75 oz. Yellow Chartreuse
0.75 oz. lime juice
0.25 oz. fresh pineapple juice
1 pineapple leaf
Shake well with ice. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with pineapple leaf and serve.
Yellow Rose of Texas
From the Violet Hour, Chicago
2 oz. Lunazul Blanco Tequila
0.75 oz. lemon juice
0.5 oz. simple syrup
0.25 oz. Yellow Chartreuse
Shake well with ice. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with three drops of rose water and serve.
Naked & Famous
From Death & Co., New York
0.75 oz. Del Maguey Chichicapa mezcal
0.75 oz. Yellow Chartreuse
0.75 oz. Aperol
0.75 oz. lime juice
Shake well with ice. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass and serve.