Wednesday 17 April 2019

The Hard Word cocktail

For some reason I always associate The Last Word cocktail with The Great Gatsby. In fact it doesn’t appear in the novel, though the characters do drink green Chartreuse,* which is a defining ingredient in the cocktail. The first published reference to it is actually in 1951, in Ted Saucier’s Bottoms Up!, but he states that it was first served 30 years earlier, in the Detroit Athletic Club. Later research in the club’s archives found the cocktail on a menu from 1916.

Traditionally it is equal parts gin, green Charteuse, lime juice and maraschino. For me this is too sweet and indeed Simon Difford actually prescribes three parts gin, but, as I discovered when trying out cocktails with Big Gin, it all depends on the gin—some are better than others at standing up to the pungent flavours of the Chartreuse.

Chartreuse itself is a herbal liqueur produced by Carthusian monks since 1737, allegedly to a recipe described in a manuscript given to them in 1605 by François Annibal d’Estrées, a nobleman originally in holy orders but who switched careers to become soldier (no one seems to know how he got his hands on it). Named after the Carthusians’ Grande Charteuse monastery, the liqueur is still produced at their distillery in nearby Voiron. It is made by macerating 130 herbs and flowers in alcohol and, like most of these things, was originally intended as a health-giving tonic. There is also a yellow version, which is sweeter, milder and less alcoholic, plus various aged versions and special editions. To this day the recipes are secret, known only by two monks who prepare the herbal mixtures.

Years ago—and I mean years ago—I for some reason bought a small bottle of their Élixir Végétal, a concentrated version of the same 130-plant extract. According to the Chartreuse website this concentrate is the original recipe, from which the various liqueurs were later derived once people started drinking the concoction for pleasure rather than as a medicine. It is sold at 69% ABV in 100ml bottles that come in an outer turned-wood case that reminds me of a Russian matryoshka doll. The elixir has a pronounced olive green colour.

Since I bought it the bottle has mostly sat at the back of a cupboard, but something recently got me thinking about it. Given its concentration, I wondered if one could use it in small quantities to add the distinctive herbal flavour but without the sweetness, and therefore the need to add lime or lemon juice for sourness to balance the sugar.

The purest form of this experiment seemed to be to make a Dry Martini and simply add a bit of the elixir. If a Last Word seems too complicated, too much of a punch-up between brassy sweet and sour flavours, may I present to you the Hard Word. The elixir does have sugar in it, but in these quantities it still leaves the cocktail a pretty dry beverage, yet with the distinctive pungent herbal flavour of Chartreuse.

Of course a purer form might be to dispense with the vermouth, or indeed to use vodka instead of gin, and I did try these: with just vodka and the elixir it’s easy to end up with something that’s like a not-very-sweet green Chartreuse liqueur, though if you get the balance right you can still taste some of the character of the vodka. With gin but no vermouth at least there is an interplay of the various botanicals, but I think the version below gives the greatest scope to combine flavours and adjust the strength and wetness of your drink by how much vermouth you use.

The Hard Word
2½ shots gin
½ shot dry vermouth
½ tsp Chartreuse Élixir Végétal
Shake with ice and strain into a cocktail glass

This might not sound like very much Chartreuse, but I measured out 2.5ml using a measuring spoon and I didn’t feel it needed any more. You’ll see I haven’t deployed a garnish: I did try serving one of these with a lemon twist—and it completely ruined the drink. Later I tried one with a green olive garnish and the briny, savoury flavour went a bit better, but I’m not sure it actually improved the cocktail. There may be an appropriate garnish out there (perhaps a herb of some sort) but I don’t know what it is yet.

* Chapter 5: “Finally we came to Gatsby’s own apartment, a bedroom and a bath, and an Adam study, where we sat down and drank a glass of some Chartreuse he took from a cupboard in the wall.” Now that I look, it doesn't actually specify green Chartreuse—and the yellow version had been around for almost 90 years by the time this scene takes place.

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