Stiff Medicine: Chartreuse Elixir Végétal

Could Elixir Végétal be America's next great cult cocktail ingredient?

It tastes like—well, let’s say a scrubby sub-Alpine hillside; comes in a bottle small enough to sit on a shelf in your medicine cabinet; and, for some Chowhounds, has the mystique of the hard-to-find. But despite being an off-menu attraction in at least one stylish LA cocktail bar, Elixir Végétal—it’s illegal.

Well, technically, it’s only illegal to sell Élixir Végétal, formally known in Frenglish as the Herbal Elixir de la Grand-Chartreuse. A SWAT team won’t drag you out of your condo for the mere possession of that little bottle you bought in Paris. You just can’t bring home a case to sell on eBay.

Too bad, since Élixir Végétal, or EV, is an amazing and very potent (138 proof) spirit—it makes an interesting substitution for bitters in some drinks. It’s the original version of Green Chartreuse, distilled by the same order of Carthusian monks in the French Alps. That Chartreuse, which is imported legally into the U.S. and displayed on bar shelves, appeared in 1764. EV was born in 1605, says Tim Master, U.S. brand ambassador for Chartreuse. The monks made it to be a tonic, distilled from well over a hundred different herbs and flowers (also sugar—the exact formula is kept as tightly guarded as Coke’s).

TAKE TWO DASHES AND CALL ME IN THE MORNING
In the 1600s and 1700s, there was no formal medicine, not as we know it, Master says, which is why the monks kept the recipe secret. “The herbs and spices in the Élixir Végétal, that’s gold,” he points out. It also may be why EV is unlikely to show up on this side of the Atlantic as an import. Since it’s technically a medicine (in France, pharmacies stock it, for flu or cold sufferers to dribble onto a sugar cube or infuse in hot water with lemon as a tonic) it would no doubt trigger more FDA-type regulatory scrutiny than bringing in, say, some simple apéritif.

I first tasted EV at a friend’s house (somebody brought her a bottle from Tokyo). We dripped it onto coffee spoons filled with sugar, and swallowed it like some kind of homeopathic remedy. The impact was huge for such a tiny volume of Elixir: It blanketed my tongue and sinuses with a combination of pine sap, weedy cannabis, and thyme, and kept resonating there for a few minutes, long after I thought it would have faded. When I was in Paris last month, I bought a couple of 100-milliliter bottles at a department store wine shop, for 13 euros (about $16.45) each.

BIG IN LA
Lord knows plenty of self-medicating goes on at night in Los Angeles. At the Varnish, you can ask for the Hillside, a cocktail that contains a few dashes of Elixir Végétal. Former Varnish general manager Chris Bostick (he’s left to open a cocktail bar in Austin) came up with the Hillside for a guest stint at Beretta in San Francisco—watch Bostick make one in this video from Modern Plank.

Where does the Varnish get its EV supply? “It’s always a gift,” explains current GM Max Seaman. “Sometimes from liquor reps, people who go to Europe and bring some back.” And anyway, since the Hillside isn’t on any kind of menu, you have to know to ask for it. “Usually only real hard-core cocktail geeks,” Seaman says.

The Varnish also uses EV in place of angostura bitters for a house version of the Champagne cocktail: a few dashes of the Élixir soaked into a Demerara sugar cube, with Moët poured over. It’s called a Monk’s Champagne.

Order a few next time you're at the Varnish, and tell yourself it's medicine.

Photograph by Chris Rochelle

John Birdsall is senior editor at CHOW. You can follow him on Twitter. Follow CHOW, too, and become a fan on Facebook.