The Cloister Cocktail is an excellent introduction to Chartreuse.

Chartreuse is a notoriously difficult ingredient — aggressively herbal, it dominates anything it comes near. It’s a huge flavor bomb, and it is very unfriendly to many when they first encounter it. It is an acquired taste, one I’m… still acquiring.

Chartreuse is one of the oldest of our liqueurs — the monks of Chartreuse have been making it since the early 1700s. It is said to be made up of 130 medicinal herbs, and its complex flavor still strongly suggests its original use as a tonic. It can be delightful in small amounts, a cocktailian mystery ingredient.

Cloister cocktail, photo © 2013 Douglas M. Ford. All rights reserved.
The Cloister Cocktail

Often thought of as a love-it-or-hate-it ingredient, I’ve found that in the Cloister there is a middle position for Chartreuse — a small amount, used sparingly, that blends with the citrus and gin into a delightfully balanced cocktail:

The Cloister Cocktail

  • 1½ oz Dry Gin (Bombay Dry, Plymouth)
  • ¼–½ oz Yellow Chartreuse (¼ oz Green Chartreuse)
  • ½ oz fresh grapefruit juice
  • ¼ oz fresh lemon juice
  • ¼ oz simple syrup

Shake with ice and strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with a grapefruit twist. (Green Chartreuse works just fine in this drink.)

This formula has about half the Chartreuse of the versions you’ll usually encounter. The canonical recipe specifies Yellow Chartreuse; having none, I used the more readily available, and more aggressively flavored, Green Chartreuse. With Green, you definitely want to cut back that original half ounce.

Chartreuse works great as a spice, poorly as a main flavor. As Katie Pizzuto at Gonzo Gastronomy puts it,

“It’s kinda like the bassoon—a lot of it will make your head spin, but just one or two sprinkled into an orchestra adds a little something extra that’s not quite tangible.”

The Cloister also intrigues me for its inclusion of grapefruit juice, which, while not a rare ingredient, is far from common.  When I first saw the recipe, I expected it to be way out of balance toward the sour side, but it turns out to be very nicely balanced, with a heady bouquet of fresh-cut grapefruit, but none of the citrusy sharpness I had anticipated.

The drink is a bit of a conundrum historically. I first learned of it from Robert Hess, whose research places its first publication in a 1975 version of Playboy’s Host and Bar Book by Thomas Mario. I’ve seen no references to the drink’s creator.