This is the umpteenth draft of the second lesson in my Distiller’s Workbook. I started it as a book project with the idea of generating interest in distillation by showing a simplified form of it based on the re-distillation of tax paid commercial products.
Over time, the recipes have been elevated from merely low involvement cocktail-centric creations into being a workbook of exercises for new distillers to learn big concepts in distillation on small scale equipment with affordable batch sizes. Hopefully new distillers will be able to learn most all the what-if scenarios of operating a still so they can instead deepen their involvement with the sourcing & processing of raw materials, fermentation, and then the maturing of spirit.
A big focus of the workbook is to expose new distillers to the giant body of research concerning the subject via referencing it. I started by collecting every book on the distillation I could find and that still left a lot of questions. I eventually started collecting forgotten and seldom seen journal articles. These were newly digitized or trapped behind pay walls and I have read hundreds in the last few years. Most professional distillers do not even know this massive body of work exists so I hope to weave it into the content and introduce it to people.
De-constructing and Re-constructing Chartreuse
The Chartreuses are one of the great curiosities of the spirits world. Their production is ancient and mysterious. Their aromas are other worldly and defy attempts at being translated into articulate language. They are also very much an acquired taste. To better understand the Chartreuses, it might help to dissect them with distillation and see what is happening under those colored facades. This exercise will also give insights into a seldom recognized and little understood phenomenon of volatility brought on by compounds, in this case sucrose, playing the role of fixatives.
One of the common Chartreuse misconceptions is that they are partially constructed from undistilled macerations of botanicals which result in the infamous colors. As distilling the Chartreuses reveals, all of the aromas present, with a caveat we will explore, (and with the exception of the Acacia honey that sweetens the Yellow) are volatile and are a product of being distilled. This means that though many people describe the Chartreuses as bitter, underneath the sugar there is no gustatory bitterness. What gets categorized as bitterness (and we might be confusing it with sourness!) is solely from aroma. Good news for playing around with Chartreuse.
Understanding Chartreuse may be benefited by describing them with cross modal metaphors which are sometimes also called grounded metaphors by linguists; basically one sense is described in terms of another. We all use grounded metaphors whether we recognize it or not, but we all don’t elaborate them to their full potential. The aroma of Green Chartreuse can be described as a series of olfactory-dry aromas from a tight spectrum that converges with the color green contrasted by faint intervals of both olfactory-sweet anise and lemon. The sugar that sweetens Green Chartreuse is non-aromatic.
The aroma of Yellow Chartreuse can be described as a series of olfactory-dry aromas from a tight spectrum that converges with the color yellow contrasted by the olfactory-sweet aroma of the Acacia honey used to sweeten it and a faint interval of olfactory-sweet anise. Acacia honey is one of the palest of the European varietal honeys.
Being made from distillates means that the Chartreuses are a good candidate for manipulation via re-distillation. There are no important gustatory features defining the flavor that cannot be separated from the sugar. We can therefore separate Green Chartreuse from its non-aromatic white sugar (and color) and replace it with an aromatic sugar source of our choice. The de-constructed distillate can then be re-constructed with the same sugar and alcohol contents as before. The only major difference would be the additional aroma and the lack of green color (the color can be replaced with liquid chlorophyll dye sold by health food stores).
The aromatic sugar source contributes aroma in the same way as the Acacia honey in Yellow Chartreuse which is via simply dissolving one into the other, but aroma can also be increased further by adding aroma sources before re-distillation. It is easy to envision crab apples, rose petals, or any aroma sources with olfactory-sweetness found in the backyard that can monogram and personalize a Chartreuse bottling.
A favorite aromatic addition to Green Chartreuse is Jaggery (and not just for its euphonic qualities!) which is the sugar of the coconut palm and has the loveliest of coconut aromas. The Jaggery sugars on the market do seem to show variance and not all sugars labeled as Jaggery are purely derived from coconut palms. The favorite of the many acquired for recipe development was the whitest in color and had the most intense aroma.
Now for the caveat. Not all of the aroma can be captured by re-distillation and the reason is the fixative effect of the sucrose. The Chartreuses, being liqueurs, have quite a bit of sugar and all that sugar basically hangs on to a small percentage of the aroma. When you taste what is left in the pot after distillation, there is some aroma left hanging around. The aroma left behind isn’t much and it might be safe to say that it is less than 5%. What isn’t known is if adding water to dilute the concentration of sugar can reduce the fixative effect.
Fixatives are commonly used in the perfume industry to reduce the volatility of wearable fragrances so they can linger longer on the skin. They are also used to bring aromas together when they are perceived spatially so they are experienced as a symphony and not just a disparate sequence in order of decreasing volatility. Keep in mind, their common usage is with frontal olfactory experiences and not retronasal olfaction which governs most flavor experiences. According to Peter Atkins’ Molecules, animal derived fixatives like Civetone or Muskone, which have notoriously powerful aromas, are actually most commonly added sub recognition threshold where the odor is masked.
The power of fixatives is currently a hot topic in food processing due to new options like the sugar trehalose. Many research papers dehydrate fruit juices with added sugars and then try to measure how much aroma was left over. Maximizing fixative effect is important for high quality freeze drying. Sucrose exhibits a definite fixative effect but trehalose demonstrates an effect that is vastly more significant. The fixative effect of sucrose will put limitations of re-distilling Chartreuse but it should not deter anyone from experimenting.
500 mL Green Chartreuse
200 mL water
Mix and re-distill together on medium reflux until the thermometer on the still reads 100°C, or as high as your thermometer can go with the goal being to capture as much of the alcohol and aroma as possible. The extra water is added in an attempt to reduce the fixative effect of the sucrose as well as make sure the sugar doesn’t get too concentrated and stick to the sides of the boiler.
To reveal the sugar content of Chartreuse, what is left in the boiler should be collected, diluted back to the 500 mL original volume and left to cool to room temperature. Once at room temperature, the liquid left in the boiler can be measured with a brewer’s hydrometer to assess its sugar content. Finding the sugar content will reveal how much aromatic sugar it will take to restore the volatile alcoholic fraction to its original level.
Results revealed a specific gravity of 1.091 in the alcohol removed segment which corresponds to a sugar content of approximately 240 g/L. Do not be surprised if your results differ. Liqueurs are notorious for inconsistency.
To re-sweeten the alcoholic segment, weigh out 120 grams of grated Jaggery and stir patiently until the sugar dissolves (impatient people can use a blender). Dilute the results back to 500 mL with distilled water to match the original batch size. If desired, natural chlorophyll dye can be used to re-color the re-constructed a product close enough to its original green.
Jaggery sweetened green chartreuse contains the same series of olfactory-dry aromas as the original, but besides faint intervals of both olfactory-sweet anise and lemon peel there is also the intense olfactory-sweet coconut aroma from the Jaggery. Because of the influence of the introduced olfactory-sweet aroma, Jaggery sweetened Green Chartreuse will be perceived as sweeter than the original plain Green Chartreuse.
What is left in the pot after distillation of the Green Chartreuse can be evaporated until it is super saturated then used to grow green rock candy swizzle sticks to serve as an accompaniment to your Chartreuse cocktails. The angular texture of the rock candy can be seen as a metaphor for the aroma of the Chartreuses.
Yellow Chartreuse can be given the same treatment as Green, but the volatile aromas of the Acacia honey will also be somewhat present. It may be wonderful to experience a Yellow Chartreuse sweetened with a boutique varietal honey such as a rich Chestnut Flower, a pungently earthy Dandelion, or a spicy Corsican Strawberry Tree. Be aware that when sweetening with honey, they are typically 20% free water by weight which needs to be compensated for. Many varietal honeys also contain significant portions of wax. Any wax can either be embraced or separated by centrifuging for use in other applications.
1.5 oz. Jamaican rum
.75 oz. sweet vermouth
.75 oz. Jaggery aromatized Green Chartreuse
.75 oz. gin
.75 oz. Maraschino liqueur
.75 oz. Jaggery aromatized Green Chartreuse
.75 oz. lime juice
1.5 oz. cognac
.75 oz. Jaggery aromatized Green Chartreuse
.75 oz. lemon juice
dash Angostura bitters