(Originally published July 27 2011 | Phoenix New Times)
We're uncorking our latest column, Bottoms Up -- a weekly guide to everything brewed, bottled, blended, barrel-aged and generally booze-soaked.
Up first, the strange-but-true story of chartreuse, an iconic (and reportedly hallucinogenic) liqueur handcrafted by French Monks from a 400-year-old recipe.
Originally named "The Elixir of Life," lord only knows exactly what's in chartreuse. And I mean that literally.
For decades, chartreuse was slowly disappearing from bar shelves across America, dismissed as an outdated, oddball liqueur. In fact, most people are more likely to identify chartreuse as a shade out of the Crayola box, rather than an herbaceous spirit that gave name to the color.
That said, along with everything else associated with classic cocktail culture, this monk-made moonshine -- which comes in both yellow and green varieties -- is starting to reappear at local watering holes.
In The Beginning Founded in 1084, The Order of Chartreuse was just another ancient order of monks until 1605, when they were gifted a mysterious manuscript for a curative elixir made from 130 herbs and botanicals. But, it wasn't until 1737 that the monastery's in-house apothecary, or chemist, was able to perfect the recipe.
It's still used to this day, although to keep the formula secret, no single person knows the entire recipe. Instead two different monks learn a portion of the process, which is then combined to create a 138 proof spirit known as Chartreuse Elixir Vegetal Liqueur (aka "The Elixer of Life").
The Quest For The Perfect Cocktail
Like many bartenders, Trudy Thomas, the Director of Beverages at the posh JW Marriott Camelback Inn, says she first learned about chartreuse as one of the main ingredients in the old school drink known as the Pousse Café.
Translating to "coffee pusher" or "coffee chaser," this rainbow-like cocktail features layer after layer of brightly-colored booze stacked inside a tall, slender glass. Sipped through a straw, one liver-pummeling layer after another, Thomas says it's a forerunner to more modern layered drinks such as the B-52.
Unfortunately, you can't buy the real-deal elixir here in the states, reportedly because the monks refuse to tell the FDA exactly what's in it. But plenty of bars in town stock both traditional Green Chartreuse (110 proof) and its sweeter-tasting sibling, Yellow Chartreuse (80 proof). Meanwhile, some such as Cowboy Ciao and the adjacent speakeasy, Kazimierz World Wine Bar, also offer the higher-end version known as V.E.P. Chartreuse, which has been aged for an additional 10 months in oak casks. Chockfull of spicy-sweet herbal flavors and complex aromatics, it's also potent enough that the staff has nicknamed it, "Go Home Juice," for its ability to end the night of even the most persistent barfly. "It's amazing to me that absinthe was taken off the market, but chartreuse has always remained legal and it has way more hallucinogenic properties," says owner, Peter Kasperski. "Plus, no one knows what's in it."
What To Order
Cowboy Ciao and Kazimierz offer two cocktails featuring chartreuse:
Named after the main ingredient, Jamaican ugli fruit (an orange, tangerine and grapefruit hybrid), it's mixed with fresh lemon and muddled basil, and topped with V.E.P. Green Chartreuse.
Bay to Breakers
Inspired by the annual clothing-optional race in San Francisco, it features Hendrick's gin, grapefruit, V.E.P. Green Chartreuse and muddled basil.
R Bar at the JW Marriott Camelback Inn also offers two cocktails featuring chartreuse (by request only): Corpse Reviver #2 This classic cocktail features gin, lemon juice and Green Chartreuse, shaken and served up. Last Call (pictured) Also known as the Last Word, it's one of the few cocktails created during Prohibition, and is equal parts gin, maraschino liqueur, green chartreuse and lime juice.
Where To find It
7133 East Stetson Drive in Scottsdale, 480-946-3111, www.cowboyciao.com
Kazimierz World Wine Bar
7137 East Stetson Drive in Scottsdale, 480-946-3004, www.kazbar.net
R Bar at Camelback Inn
5402 East Lincoln Drive in Paradise Valley, 800-242-2635, www.camelbackinn.com