I like my ladies the way I like my cocktails: strong, cool, and complex.
I’ve been trying to make this cocktail since 2007 when I first tried it at Alembic in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco. Amelia and I used to frequent Alembic when it first opened, before there was a line out the door every night and you had to elbow-fight pretty hipsters to get a drink. Back then, we would meet after work, which for us was around midnight. I worked a plating shift at a schmancy restaurant where I juggled 8 different desserts every night, then scoured the kitchen from top to bottom, all for what basically amounted to minimum wage. Amelia worked odd hours as a counselor at a house for folks who had fallen on hard times. We would both emerge from work when most of the city was tucked into bed, both in need of a stiff drink. We’d belly up to the near-empty bar, chat with the bartenders about the relative merits of gin vs. whiskey, and snack on deviled duck eggs and the most delicious cocktails either of us had ever tasted.
The Mediterranean Homesick Blues was my usual, a light and fizzy gin concoction kissed with cardamom, rose, and lemon, which I adapted here (and really deserves some better, non-smart-phone photos). One night, a lady bartender was serving us and I asked her for something similar but different. She shook me up a creation of her own, strained it into a coupe, and garnished it with a mint leaf. I took a sip: icy bits kissed my lips, fresh mint wafted cool and clean, and a bouquet of herbs and spices punched me in the kisser. It was the classiest cocktail I’d ever met.
I asked the name of the drink, to which she replied, “Femme Fatale.” Fitting. Thinking I could simply look up the recipe online, I tumbled into a taxi and headed home. But the interwebs told a different story. There was no gin and chartreuse-based Femme Fatale to be found, only something sweet and fruity made with SoCo that was the antithesis of the drink I sought.
Luckily, we tracked down the bartender a second time, and again she shook up the most ambrosial liquid I’d ever tasted. And this time, I made her write down the formula on a coaster. I put the coaster on my refrigerator and made a concerted effort to procure Green Chartreuse, a bright green herbal liquor made by Carthusian monks in the Grenoble region of France since the 1700’s. The spirit usually comes in wine bottle-sized containers and costs a fair sum. Yet the price is reasonable when you consider that 130 different types of herbs, spices, and botanicals go into making the naturally-colored libation. It tastes a little bit like old-school medicine, in a good way. Monk medicine. It has bittersweet notes of star anise, spices, and green herbs such as basil, mint, and tarragon. It tastes fresh and green, but warming and hearty at the same time, like a liqueur and bitters all rolled into one. Yellow chartreuse has a similar flavor profile, but it gets sweetness and dilution from honey and saffron, which give it its warm hue. Both types of Chartreuse are often sipped on their own as a digestif, either chilled or at room temperature. But the green stuff, as I had learned, also pairs perfectly with gin, which ups the botanical ante, allowing the flavors to blossom. (If you’re Chartreuse-curious, read this great article from Serious Eats, which will make you seriously thirsty.)
But in San Francisco, space was at a premium, even back in 2007. I was loath to shell out 60 bucks for a giant bottle of a strong spirit that I wasn’t sure I could get through in the next 20 years and that would take up precious real estate in the liquor cabinet. So the coaster with the Femme Fatale recipe sat unused for years.
Then last week, my friend Shelley told me about a cocktail she’d had at Smokestack, a local eatery that puts the “bar” in “bar-b-que” and is also under the same parent company as Alembic – Magnolia Brewing. Shelley’s favorite drink, the Islais Lady, is a gin-based cocktail shaken up with a bunch of herbaceous spirits and strained into a coupe. I took a sip of hers one night and BAM – memories of the Femme Fatale flooded my senses. I had to have it again.
This time, my Chartreuse hunt turned up a half-sized bottle, which I found at the unlikeliest of places: a local market with a petite selection of spirits. I did a happy dance, paid, and rushed home. (Of course, I could have ordered it online, but I didn’t think of that.) I fished the coaster out from an old recipe binder, mixed up a batch of simple syrup, juiced a lime, shook, strained, and sipped, and…
…it wasn’t as good as I remembered. Too strong, too sweet, too much anise from the Chartreuse, and not enough mint. Tinkering was in order. I took down the simple syrup and Chartreuse and threw in a handful of fresh mint leaves, which broke into tiny shards in the shaker. This time it was perfect: ice cold but with warming flavors from spicy chartreuse, refreshingly minty, with a complex one-two punch from the gin, and enough acidity from lime juice to balance the sweet liqueur. I dubbed it The Verdant Lady, cousin to the Femme Fatale, soft and delicate like Smokestack’s Islais Lady.
The Verdant Lady works well in any weather, hot or cold; though if you’re after something more light and refreshing, simply stir the drink with ice, then strain into ice-filled tumblers and top with fizzy water for something akin to a delicate gin and tonic.
Now that I’ve got me a bottle of chartreuse, I’m dying to finally try it in ice cream, truffles, and Verte Chaude: chartreuse hot chocolate, popular with the French après-ski crowd. I nibbled a piece of chocolate today with my Verdant Lady and the combination was surprisingly spot-on. And I’m also looking forward to trying the Last Word Cocktail, another ginny Chartreuse number with Luxardo in the mix. Because a lady always needs to have the last word.
Now if only I could find a small bottle of Luxardo…
And thanks to the folks at W&P Design for gifting me the lovely mason jar cocktail shaker pictured here.
Speaking of spicy green things, I’m excited to announce the winners of the #EatGreen2016 Spice Society contest (detailed here). It was painful to pick. We loved all of your photos so much and wanted to eat each and every one. Many thanks to all who entered!
- 3 tablespoons (1½ ounces) gin (such as Hendrick's)
- 1 tablespoon (1/2 ounce) fresh, strained lime juice
- 1½ teaspoons (1/4 ounce) simple syrup
- 1 teaspoon (1/6 ounce) Green Chartreuse
- 4 large mint leaves, plus a sprig for garnish (optional)
- In a cocktail shaker filled halfway with ice, combine the gin, lime juice, simple syrup, chartreuse, and mint leaves. Shake vigorously for 30 seconds, then strain into a coupe. Garnish with a mint sprig if you like, and serve.