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Chartreuse is quite the birectifier case study, and though it will not reveal any secrets, an examination, I hope, will enhance appreciation. It was also a challenging case study because even when fractioned into parts, it still so readily defies language. How do I convey insights and a sense of wonder to anyone not present to dip their nose into sensations so elusive?
The answer may be to look at some of my older experimental writing when I was obsessed with aroma categorization and use of metaphor systems. This is necessary because Chartreuse, as we all know, has a lot of aroma that are not so culinary and probably better associated with wearable perfume fragrances.
We may have to set the scene for Chartreuse a little bit. Some great bits of their philosophy are revealed in a recent document about their move.
Long ago, when I looked at Chartreuse, it seemed to me to represent the banishment of certain aromas for symbolic purposes. I thought the Chartreuse aroma was likely symbolic of chastity because of how it avoided any round sensual fruit aromas. Feel free to brush up on olfactory and flavour symbolism if you need some help understanding. Of course it all goes horribly wrong pretty fast and pretty soon Chartreuse gets favored by the degenerates. I was introduced to it by a rock’n roller who worked at South Street Diner and sported a “Tip Me” belt buckle that had a slot to hold a Zippo.
The famous documentary of the Carthusian monks is called Into Great Silence, and that silence no doubt provoked other forms of non-linguistic thought and order found in Chartreuse. Our best glimpse at that order may be the scales of perfumer G. Septimus Piesse:
Ascending-descending scale becomes somewhat apparent when you experience the birectifier fractions. Breeze through the fractions in both directions, and if you’re sensitive, whichever cross modal metaphors of scale you’ve previously exercised will come to you. They are chromatic. They are auditory. You taste evolving shapes with angles. George Lakoff, Adrienne Lehrer, and Pamela Vandyke Price would be freaking out. All the neurologists that wrote about synaesthesia would just start high-fiving and spinning in circles.
I would not be surprised if the monks were obsessed with scale and the various separate distillates were arranged and ordered in such way. I would also not be surprised if the monks played the High Value Terpene (HVT) game. This is a wild conjecture, but they did have some louching in their fraction 5 that I have no idea of what to attribute it to. Consumers also absolutely freak for the stuff paying top dollar which is a pattern of behavior for any spirits containing HVTs or other High Value Congeners (HVC). Do the monks merely treat botanicals, fresh is best, like a gin? Because in the HVT game everything gets a little stranger. A vanilla bean has no apparent vanilla aroma until it is sweated and tortured to unlock its HVTs. Is there room for them to do anything similar to make the hyssop pop? [I have no updated information on my conjecture but my theory at the time is that some botanicals may have been heated with sulfuric acid to release certain aromas such as is rumored to be possible with a few specific botanicals in the Tobacconist literature.]
Nature is a temple where living pillars
Let escape sometimes confused words;
Man traverses it through forests of symbols
That observe him with familiar glances.
Like long echoes that intermingle from afar
In a dark and profound unity,
Vast like the night and like the light,
The perfumes, the colors and the sounds respond.
There are perfumes fresh like the skin of infants
Sweet like oboes, green like prairies,
—And others corrupted, rich and triumphant
That have the expanse of infinite things,
Like ambergris, musk, balsam and incense,
Which sing the ecstasies of the mind and senses.
-Charles Baudelaire (sent to me by David Ferry)
Fraction 1: A type of citrus-piney aroma. Quite surprising. Almost menthol-like but more as a chemical sensation than an aroma.
Fraction 2: Similar to fraction 1, but seems to be declining in intensity.
Fraction 3: Slight aromatic hallmarks of Chartreuse. Far less aromatic intensity than the other fractions. Contains almost a faint aroma like malt?
Fraction 4: Weightier characteristic Chartreuse aromas but still not so aromatic.
Fraction 5: Quite intense and unique. When you move from 4 to 5, you almost feel the shape of the aroma and even its color in your mind’s eye change. All the angular facets seem smaller and less acute. This fraction also had a slight cloudiness not found in gin’s or curaçao. Slightly acrid to the taste much like the fraction 5’s of some non-aromatized spirits.
Fraction 6: Cooked, exhausted, and foresty all come to mind. Slightly staleness seen in the later fractions of other distillates. Everything in here seem laissez-faire. This likely represents a baseline for how much is acceptable.
If I made such a liqueur in the future, to scale, I would add an obsession with semantic odor space.