Chartreuse a popular, if mysterious, option at local bars | On The Rocks | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

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Chartreuse a popular, if mysterious, option at local bars

The precise measurements of the ingredients are known by just two monks at a time

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There has always been an air of mystery around Chartreuse.

"A lot of people ask what it is, or say they've seen it in their grandparents' house," says Salt of the Earth's Summer Voelker, who lists it as one of her favorite spirits. "There are so many layers of flavor."

There are, in fact, more than 130 ingredients inside ... and hardly anyone knows what they are.

The story of Chartreuse begins in 1605, when an ancient recipe for "Elixir of Long Life" was given to Carthusian monks in the French Alps. The monks spent more than 100 years decoding the complex text. Green Chartreuse — which later lent its name to the bright green color — was first sold in 1764. A yellow version of the liquor was released in 1838. 

Both recipes are shrouded in secrecy: The precise measurements of the ingredients are known by just two monks at a time. In 1904, the French government nationalized the monastery, but the monks refused to yield their secret, and fled to coastal Spain rather than give it up. The government attempted to make a knock-off recipe, to no avail. Conceding defeat, the government invited the monks back to France in 1930, and the recipe has remained secret since then.

The two Chartreuse preparations have very different characteristics: Green is hot (110 proof), herbal and tastes of anise; yellow (80 proof) carries notes of honey, saffron and vanilla. Both versions are easy to mix and, according to Voelker, "really complement everything they come in contact with."

Several bars in town — among them Soba, BRGR, Bar Marco and Verde — are serving Chartreuse cocktails, most of which tend toward classic preparations. Salt of the Earth's current offering features green Chartreuse, Buffalo Trace bourbon, hickory-smoked honey (smoked in-house!) and Meyer lemon. It's a warming, slightly medicinal — in a good way — concoction. "I wanted to do something that was like herbal tea," says its creator, Salt's Maggie Meskey — "something that was warm and boozy and comforting when you're sick." 

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