Brewing Peridot: The Pacific Northwest version of Chartreuse
A mysterious green liquor sparkling with clarity and infused with the healing powers of over a hundred different herbs… it sounds like a potion out of a fairytale, but it is a liquor known all over the world by the name “Chartreuse.” This sweet and herbal libation is mysteriously brewed by Carthusian monks in the mountains of France. Legend tells that only two monks know the recipe of an impressive 130 botanicals that go into making this famous liqueur. The formula is believed to have been invented by a 16th century herbalist or alchemist and it has remained shrouded in secrecy ever since. It was called “The Elixir of Long Life,” and was meant first as a sort of medicine, as most (if not all) herbal liquors were at their origins.
We have long known about the medicinal qualities of plants. Ancient herbalists mixed mountain herbs into fortified wines, the same way that we cover our foraged finds in vodka today to capture their healing properties. Many of the bottles found in a modern-day cocktail bar began as medicinal tinctures, sweetened with honey or sugar and taken as a tonic or cure-all. Our ancestors looked to the hills and mountains for their medicine and it is only fitting that we continue to pass on that ancient knowledge. Besides, medicine can be both a delicious beverage and a highly-effective source of healing!
According to the drunken botanist, European distilleries make use of quite a variety of botanicals:
“And while the ingredients are generally touted as being highly secret, smaller distilleries will generally drop the pretense with a grin and a shrug. … I can say with certainty that lemon verbena, citrus peel, mace, star anise, fennel, angelica, and, well, a whole bunch of other herbs and spices, go into liqueurs of this sort. If it grows in the French countryside and it’s not likely to kill you, it’s probably in there.”
These herbal liquors elicit quite a variety of responses. Some love them, some hate them, some can’t be bothered. The wonderful part of creating your own brew is that you can create it to taste, out of the plants that you know and love! I call this version “peridot” after the beautiful greenish color these botanicals impart into it. Your own brew will likely take on new flavors as you tweak your recipe, add new plants, and experiment with percentages. But even if you were to keep everything exactly the same and keep immaculately precise notes and measurements, you’d still get a different product every year, because plants naturally take on different flavors and scents depending on climate, growing season, and other factors. Embrace the diversity and pour yourself a glass of springtime!
One way to measure the success of your brew (other than simply if it tastes good to you) is to ask if you can pick out any particular botanical, or if they all blend together seamlessly to present a unique new flavor. Botanical alcohols are typically carefully blended to achieve the latter; though it is not necessarily a hard rule. (Some of my favorite gins have a very straightforward juniper note, for example.)
When you are creating this blend, it is helpful to have a knowledge of both the flavor and the properties of the plants you are using. Potential hallucinogens such as nutmeg and wormwood should be used with caution, as well as any plants with strong effects on the body (like mugwort.) It is helpful to know the properties of your plants so that you can create a more medicinal blend but you also need to be aware of the flavors and strengths of each plant to blend them properly (see below.) If you are not comfortable enough with foraged plants to use them in this recipe, it is easily adapted to more familiar kitchen spices and herbs.
Here’s what you’ll need:
an assortment of fresh and dried herbs and botanicals (see notes below)
Soft herbs: lemon balm, wild mint, hyssop, angelica, pineapple weed, elderflower, rose petals, violet leaves and flowers, sweet cicily leaves, thimbleberry leaves, alfalfa, bee balm, crabapple flowers, plum blossoms, clover, wild strawberry leaves and flowers, yarrow leaves and flowers, mallow leaves, wild hops, cleavers, wild ginger, spearmint, peppermint, lemon verbena, fennel, thyme, sage, chamomile, bay, lemongrass, basil, rosemary, etc.
Whole spices: juniper berries, pine needles, cottonwood buds, aspen buds, usnea, licorice fern rhizome, cloves, nutmeg, star anise, cinnamon, saffron, allspice, mace, etc.
Citrus peels (the thin outer zest only)
high-proof vodka (pick something with a smooth finish; you don’t want the bottom shelf option as the harshness of low quality vodka will overtake your artful blend!)
sweetener of choice - I prefer honey or a simple sugar syrup.
- As you are gathering your herbs, spices, and other botanicals, divide them into two sections: hardy varieties that can withstand more soaking, and tender varieties that will infuse very quickly (such as fresh herbs and flowers.)
- Divide your vodka into quarters. In 1/4, you will infuse the more hardy whole spices. Fill a small jar about 1/4 of the way and then cover the rest of the way with vodka. Leave for a few days, smelling every day. When it smells good, it’s ready. Don’t infuse longer than a week.
- Infuse the citrus peels in the other 3/4 of your vodka blend. Again, it is to taste so use as much or as little as you’d like. Let sit for a day or two, then strain, discarding the citrus peels.
- Wash and dry your herbs thoroughly. Assess them and create a balanced blend from what you have. Stronger herbs (such as sagebrush, mugwort, wormwood, thyme, or rosemary) should be used sparingly, while sweeter herbs (such as mint, lemon balm, fennel, or hyssop) can be used in greater amounts. Floral flavors (like wild rose and elderflower) can be added in fairly high amounts; since their flavors are more subtle, you’ll need more of them to shine through in the finished blend.
- Once you have created a balanced herbal blend you are happy with, place it in a big jar and cover with the citrus-infused vodka. Tender green botanicals tend to infuse fairly quickly; let the vodka sit somewhere warmish for 5-6 hours, then take a small sample. If it tastes wonderful, you’re done. If you feel it could use a bit longer, let it continue to infuse, tasting every hour or two. Do not infuse longer than 24 hours.
- Strain your herbal blend and pour a small bit into a glass. Add a few drops of the first spice-based infusion and taste. You want to add some complexity to your herbal blend without overwhelming it with the stronger spice blend, so test proportions until you find the “sweet spot.” Then add your spice blend to your herbal blend slowly until you have achieved that balance.
- To turn your tincture into a true liquor, you’ll need to sweeten it. Add honey or simple syrup to taste - around 1 part sweetener to 3 parts alcohol is a good starting point, then add more sweetener if desired.
- Serve chilled as an after-dinner digestive, or before your feast as an aperitif. This blend will change with aging so enjoy it within a few months if you’d like to preserve the flavor! It can sometimes age really nicely, though, so if you have a bit left over in the fall or winter it makes a lovely evening treat then as well.
A final tip: If you want to get this lovely green color, you’ll need to add a couple of special ingredients. (Most tinctures turn some sort of tan or brown.) Saffron imparts a lovely golden-yellow color as well as its famous flavor, and butterfly pea flowers give a blue tint with no flavor. Together, they make green. You do not need either to make a delicious brew, but if the presentation of a sparkling green liquor is important to you this is a good way to get that.
I hope you enjoy the process of making your own Peridot! As always, if you enjoy my writings and would like to support me, please take a look at my Patreon page. Cheers!