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Saturday, August 23, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 75.0° F  Fog/Mist
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From the monastery to you
The liqueur Chartreuse is an herbal blast from the past
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Ah, January. Season of winter darkness and inner light, snowy woods (even if we have to imagine them) and brilliant stars. Time to curl up in front of the fire with a good book and a tiny glass of something mysteriously delicious.

January is the month when I reach way into the back of the wine cupboard and haul out a wooden box branded with the sign of an order of monks founded 900 years ago. Inside is a dusty, dark green, numbered bottle sealed with wax. Chartreuse - not the bright green or chrome-yellow stuff you can buy in any liquor store, but the good stuff: Chartreuse V.E.P. (Viellissement Exceptionnellement Prolongé: exceptionally long aged).

At $120 a bottle, it's exceptionally expensive, too - but then a single bottle can last a decade if you only drink it, as I do, once or twice a year.

Chartreuse is an obscure liqueur, although it has its fans. It was popular among goths for a while, thanks to Peggy Z. Brite's debut novel Lost Souls, in which green Chartreuse is the drink of choice for a band of sex-crazed, drug-addicted vampires. Hunter S. Thompson (a writer who himself bore a strong resemblance to the undead) mentions green Chartreuse several times in Generation of Swine. "Curiously," notes one critic, "his characters seem to be drawn to it in moments of great desperation shortly before death."

Tom Waits immortalized it on the album Heartattack and Vine. And even earlier generations of nihilistic party-boys loved Chartreuse: Jay Gatsby shared a bottle with his friend Nick in The Great Gatsby.

You don't have to be nearly dead, undead or even wish you were dead to enjoy Chartreuse, though. As I said, it's potent and mysterious stuff. The original herbal liqueur, Chartreuse is brewed by monks high in the French Alps from a legendarily secret mixture of 130 different herbs, plants, roots and leaves, which are soaked in alcohol, distilled, then mixed with honey and aged in oak. (The green color is the natural result of all the chlorophyll.)

The exact formula for Chartreuse is so secret, there are only two monks in the whole world who know the ingredients. Plus, it has a backstory that rivals The Da Vinci Code for arcane melodrama.

The original formula for Chartreuse comes from a manuscript that was already ancient in 1605, when it was given to a particularly austere order of monks - the Carthusians. Entitled "An Elixir of Long Life," the manuscript contained a recipe for an alchemical cure-all that was so complex it took the monks more than a hundred years just to decipher it.

By the end of the 18th century, the Carthusian monastery in Chartreuse was famous for its green liqueur. But then the French Revolution erupted, and the monks were forced to flee France. They entrusted their precious manuscript to one of their order, who was to carry it secretly out of the country. Instead, he was caught and arrested. From prison, he managed to smuggle the manuscript to another brother in hiding. This monk, however, believed his order had been dissolved forever, and in a fit of opportunistic grief, he sold it.

As the plots of a score of recent thrillers attest, however, secret medieval manuscripts have remarkable staying power. This one resurfaced under Napoleon and was eventually returned to the monks. They reopened their monastery in a section of the French Alps so remote it's called "The Desert" and began gathering and growing their secret herbs again. To this day, "La Grande Chartreuse" - the motherhouse of the Carthusian order - is the only place in the world where the liqueur Chartreuse is made.

While I cherish Chartreuse in part for its history and its aura of secrecy and medievalism, what I really love is the taste. The aroma of Chartreuse is redolent with pine and evergreen - one sip is like a fiery blast of herb-infused green forest. Literally fiery: green Chartreuse V.E.P. is 54% alcohol, or 108 proof - which might explain something of its appeal to oblivion-seeking literati. What could be more romantic than an obscure French spirit with a 400-year pedigree, guaranteed to get you wasted in record time?

(In fact, Chartreuse may be distantly related to the notorious French liqueur absinthe. Some people speculate that Chartreuse's secret formula may include a small quantity of thujone, the psychoactive chemical in wormwood, which is the ingredient that caused absinthe to be banned in Europe and the U.S.)

Personally, I don't see how anyone could stand to drink enough Chartreuse to get seriously buzzed; like most liqueurs, it's meant for sipping, not chugging. In any case, what I value about Chartreuse has very little to do with the flesh - it's about the spirit.

The Carthusian monks who make Chartreuse are a rarity in this world - they're contemplatives. They spend most of their days alone, in their cells, quietly and privately reaching for the divine. Late at night, while the rest of the world sleeps, they walk barefoot in the dark to a small chapel, where they pray - for us.

There aren't many chances in this crazy, busy world to touch, let alone taste, something ancient and good. Chartreuse is both. I suppose that's why, over the years, it's become a key component of what I've come to think of as my own private Midwinter Mysteries practice. So here is my recipe for enjoying Chartreuse:

Wait for dark and then turn off all the lights in your house. Light some candles (or Christmas tree lights if you have a tree). Fill the room with soft Gregorian chant - anything by the Tallis Scholars or Anonymous 4 is good. Now pour yourself a tiny glass of Chartreuse. Taste its green fire. And invite winter's dark spirit of magic and mystery into your life.

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