If you’re a superfan of the herbal liqueur Chartreuse, then 2022 brings good news and bad news. Bad news first: Chartreuse has been harder to find lately, and that situation is likely to continue due to limited supply. But balancing out this disappointment is an exciting new arrival: A more potent version of Chartreuse known in France as “Élixir Végétal,” sold in French pharmacies and jealously smuggled to the United States in mixologists’ suitcases, is finally going to be imported here for the first time.
Chartreuse has become an essential bottle for contemporary bars for its role in cocktails like the Last Word, Bijou and Tipperary. But it’s also caught on with home bartenders. “Over the pandemic, we expected Chartreuse sales to go down because it was bartenders who made this brand, and it was mostly on-premise,” says Tim Master of the importer Frederick Wildman and Sons, who has the enviable job of bringing Chartreuse to the United States. “Surprisingly, because consumers started making drinks at home, our numbers went up.”
The difficulty finding Chartreuse isn’t just about demand, however. There are also supply constraints. Making the liqueur is a labor-intensive process using a closely guarded secret blend of 130 botanicals and a period of aging in barrels. And unlike a typical profit-seeking liquor brand, Chartreuse is produced by Carthusian monks who aren’t necessarily looking to increase sales as quickly as possible.
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“The monks made the decision that we were growing too fast,” says Master. “Making Chartreuse was taking away from their main vocation, which is to live in prayer, solitude and contemplation. To keep up with demand, they would have to get more monks to help. They would have to use more resources and create more facilities.” So instead of relentlessly increasing output, supplies of the liqueur are actually going to be reduced.
So there’s no getting around it: Chartreuse supplies are going to be tight. But that’s where the new product comes in. “As it becomes more challenging to get the core brands, we wanted to bring more options to the Chartreuse world,” says Master. The current line-up includes the famous green Chartreuse, its softer and lower-proof sibling yellow Chartreuse and the extra-aged expressions of both known as V.E.P. (or “Vieillissement Exceptionnellement Prolongé” for those who had better grades in French than I did). The new addition actually predates these liqueurs, a recipe for an elixir the Carthusian monks spent more than a century adapting and finalized in 1764.
Known as “Élixir Végétal de la Grande Chartreuse” in France, it will be labeled without the word “elixir” in the United States. Why the change? The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), the federal agency that regulates liquor labels, frowns upon the word “elixir” as implying medicinal qualities. It’s true that in the past Chartreuse was advertised for its alleged ability to cure anything from indigestion to cholera, but today we know its magical qualities are strictly gastronomic.
Like the Chartreuse liqueurs, the Végétal is also made with 130 botanicals. But other aspects of its production are simpler: It’s distilled just one time and unaged, easing supply constraints. It also helps that a little bit goes a long way. The Végétal is much stronger than its liqueur counterparts; Green Chartreuse comes in at an already weighty 110-proof, but the Vegetal shoots up to 138-proof.
What to do with this strange beast? In France, it’s often taken dissolved with a bit of sugar or sugar and water. “Here in the U.S., I ask people what they’re going to do with it and they have no idea,” says Master, who notes he enjoys it with soda water as an alternative to soda and bitters. He also offers up an unexpected suggestion that I can’t wait to try: Adding a few drops to freshly-shucked oysters.
The wait won’t be long. The Végétal will launch this month in about eleven cities and will be more widely available next year. Coming in a charming 100ml bottle encased in wood for about $26, it will be one of the most exciting additions to professional and home bars of 2022.
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