QUESTION: What green-hued herbal liqueur do cocktail aficionados and bartenders like to fill their shot glasses with when celebrating?
ANSWER: No, not Fernet—they drink that every night. Not Cynar either, though it’s certainly been done. When it’s really a special occasion, they drink green Chartreuse—the legendary French liqueur and magical ingredient behind the classic cocktail the Last Word.
Cloaked in mystery, it’s been distilled since the 18th century by Carthusian monks, with 130 ingredients blended in a recipe so closely guarded, it is said that only two monks are privy to it—and each knows only half of it. The flavor is all but ineffable: At 110 proof, it hits your tongue hot, charged with cinnamon and cooking spices, before cooling into a long (very long) finish, redolent of anise and sugarcane.
Either the taste or the story is catching on, because Chartreuse sales have been soaring in the past few years (up 40 percent in 2011), boosted in part, some believe, by Quentin Tarantino’s shout-out to the spirit in Death Proof. And he’s not the first hipster saint to anoint “the only liqueur so good they named a color after it” as a favorite—Tom Waits and Hunter S. Thompson gave the booze props first.
But there’s one other answer that fits at least the physical description in our original question: Jägermeister. That’s right—the much-ridiculed, oft-despised frat favorite. Ever try ordering a shot of Jägermeister in a nice bar? Or, God forbid, a Jäger bomb? You’ll be chased out of the place with pitchforks. But on closer examination, the two liqueurs are not so very different. Both are herbal digestifs hailing from Western Europe. Both boast a legend that is passed from one convert to another (Chartreuse has its secret, monkish recipe, while Jägermeister is “rumored” to contain deer blood). As digestifs, both were originally administered to customers for their medicinal properties. Both are syrupy, thick, and usually a mistake when shot straight. The vast difference in status is not so much inherent in the booze itself, but in the cultural signifiers attached to each. Chartreuse brings to mind artisans and esoterica; Jägermeister, Nascar and sorority girls. So the next time you look down your nose at the bro on the barstool next to you ordering a shot of Jäger with his Miller Lite—as you’re ordering your Kölsch with Chartreuse on the side—just remember not to judge a bottle by its label.
—Christopher Ross, assistant editor at Details