Your Guide To Drinking This Weekend: The Bijou

The best cocktails are often the ones with a combination of ingredients that, at first glance, appear to be a tad off kilter. Behold: the bijou.

The Cocktail I’m going to make is called Bijou, meaning ‘jewel’ in French.  The white of the gin is the diamond, the green of the Chartreuse is emerald, and the red of the vermouth is ruby.  Ah…the world’s most valuable jewels…there is time collected in this drink.
--Bartender - Episode 04 - "Amber Dream" 

The best cocktails are often the ones with a combination of ingredients that, at first glance, appear to be a tad off kilter.  Looking at the recipe leaves you questioning: surely these things, together, in these proportions, will not be pleasing.  Surely, this is a case where the creator thought of a name, or perhaps a concept, then shoehorned his ingredients to fit, rather than starting with the drink first and then searching for the name after.  But then curiosity takes hold and you mix the drink to the original specifications, and lo and behold, you hold in your hand a drink so nice, so memorable that it even inspires anime nearly 120 years after it first crossed a tippler’s lips.

Such is the case with the Bijou Cocktail, a drink that dates from the late 1800s, that in the original is a perfect digestif on a chilly night--viscous and slightly sweet--but that can be tailored and changed to meet palates less attuned to sweet or to an aperitif style sipper without losing appeal.  There is alchemy here, in three spirits and a dash or two of bitters, and that in the end, is what we are after.

Herr Johnson, I Presume? 

Harry Johnson, a bartender of German extraction who worked mostly in Chicago and New York, is widely credited as the bartender who first created a cocktail called the Bijou that utilized gin, sweet vermouth and Chartreuse with a dash of orange bitters.  In any case, he was at least the first to write down the recipe, as the 1900 edition of his Bartender’s Manual is the first place it saw print.  But one can safely say it was being mixed earlier, at some point during that mixological heyday when bartenders first began mixing vermouth and strong spirits in the late 1860s or early 1870s, because in 1895, a Cincinnati bartender, C.F. Lawlor, published The Mixicologist.  That edition featured a different Bijou, one that utilized the more common Grand Marnier in place of the Chartreuse, but was otherwise identical to Johnson’s formula.

Lawlor’s drink is nice, but not nearly as intriguing as Johnson’ published version with Chartreuse, and it was Johnson’ recipe that spread, appearing verbatim in subsequent bar manuals including Jack’s Manual in  1904 and The Savoy Cocktail Book in 1930.  It is not really known if Johnson created the drink—Johnson’s own memories and recollections are often at odds with demonstrable, historical facts—but he certainly is at least partly responsible for it spreading far and wide, and the inclination is to let him lay claim to the drink, as no one else has come forward to wrest the title from him. 

A lengthy note on Chartreuse: The only liquor so good they named a color after it. Quentin Tarentino, Death Proof 

Chartreuse has been in these pages twice before, and it is an essential bottle in your arsenal if it is the classics you seek.  It also happens to be one of the coolest, most history laden bottles found on any back bar.  A group of Carthusian Monks set up shop in a monastery in Vauvert, France, outside of Paris in the early 1100s.  The silent order toiled there for 500 years or so, praying, studying and doing monkish things until in 1605, a certain Francois Hannibal d' Estrées,  Marshal of King's Henri IV artillery, delivered them a gift of a manuscript that was already deemed to be ancient, and that allegedly outlined the recipe for an Elixir of Long Life.  Modern members of the order have determined that the manuscript dated from the 16th Century and was most likely the work of an alchemist with a deep and broad understanding of herbs and flavor (and probably distillation).  The monks at Vauvert only understood a small portion of the text and, in the early 1700s sent it on to Le Grande Chartreuse, the mother house of the order nestled in the mountains outside Grenoble.

There the document was subjected to exhaustive study and, by 1737, Frère Jerome Maubec, the apothecary, had come up a practical formula to produce the Elixir.  Transportation being what it was in the 1700s, distribution and sales of the Elixir were confined to Grenoble and other nearby villages, where it was sold as a medicine or tonic.  Today, the original Elixir is still produced from all natural plants, herbs and botanicals macerated into high proof grape spirit and bottled at 138 proof and sold as Elixir Vegetal de la Grande-Chartreuse (though not in the United States).

The monks, noticing that people enjoyed the flavor—and the alcoholic effects—of the Elixir and often consumed it even when they weren’t feeling peaked, started to produce a lower proof, milder beverage version in 1764 for recreational consumption.  This formula is identical to the Green Chartreuse produced today, bottled at 110 proof.

A number of highs and lows followed.  The monk’s were expelled from France due to the French Revolution in 1789, returned to the monastery in 1816 and completed construction of a mountain distillery in 1860.  In 1903 the government nationalized that distillery and the Monks’ went into exile in Spain where they continued to produce Chartreuse (they returned in 1929).  In 1953 a landslide destroyed their distillery and it was replaced by a modern facility at Voiron.  While all this was going on, they were developing other versions of their product, including a sweeter, lower proof yellow version in 1838, a white version in 1840 (discontinued in 1900), a Viellissement Exceptionnellement Prolongé (VEP) or aged version in 1963 and various other limited and local products that rarely leave the area around Grenoble today.

Through all this time and upheaval, the original recipe was safeguarded and even today, the herbal mixture remains a secret of the Order, with two monks working alone in the monastery who compound the herbs, plants and botanicals that make up Chartreuse.  The monks who operate the Voiron distillery receive a pre-mixed package of this material and add it to carefully distilled grape spirit.  It is rumored that the monks responsible for harvesting the various plants in the Mountains around the distillery are given lists that contain ingredients not used in Chartreuse to fool anyone who might be watching them at work, and that the complete recipe exists only one sheet of paper, separated into four parts and stored in four different safety deposit boxes in four different cities.

Your bottle of vodka can’t give you that now, can it?

A Bit on Proportions 

Johnson’s original formula for the Bijou cocktail calls for combining equal parts of Plymouth Gin, Italian (aka Sweet) Vermouth and Green Chartreuse with a dash of orange bitters in a mixing glass with ice, stirring it until cold and straining it into a cocktail glass before plopping in a cherry (yes) or an olive (shudder, no) and expressing the oils of a lemon peel atop the finished mixture.  If mixed in this way, the Bijou is a terrific after dinner drink.  It is slightly sweet, a bit thick in texture and the herbal qualities of all three spirits can ease a distended belly.  But all those qualities also make it somewhat less desirable as a pre dinner or stand alone cocktail.  Fortunately dialing back the Chartreuse and Vermouth, while upping the gin reigns in the sweetness and viscosity and makes for a more bracing cocktail.  This aperitif version is less contemplative and not as soul satisfying, but serves better if the night ahead is long and full of food and drink to come.

Many modern recipes also take the equal proportions to mean a solid ounce of each ingredient, bringing the drink to the modern standard of three ounces of liquid before shaking or stirring.  While this is fine, dialing everything back to three-quarters of an ounce makes for a shorter drink, but one that can be consumed before the sweetness becomes too cloying.  It also allows the single dash of orange bitters to do more work in unifying the three strongly flavored base ingredients.  Also, bear in mind that if you pour these ingredients in ounce measurements, you’re going to have an ounce of spirit in the 90 proof range, an ounce at 100 proof, and at ounce at about 34 proof.  A few of these will knock you on your keister, and hard.

Do what you will, but if you go the full ounce version, consider a second dash of bitters.

Some Variations 

At some point along the way, a second Bijou came into existence, one that uses the same three primary ingredients, but layers them undiluted, Pousse Café style in a small glass.  This is not suggested, unless you are a fan of warm gin, and would more properly be described as Bijou #2.  The advocates of the Bijou as layered drink claim that the mixed version should be called an Amber Dream.  These advocates would be wrong, as the Amber Dream is a terrific cocktail in its own right that follows a similar template, but uses the milder, sweeter Yellow Chartreuse and completely jacks the proportions in the name of balance.

Another variation is the Tailspin, a cocktail that follows the template of the original Bijou, but substitutes a dash of Campari for the dash of Orange Bitters.  The more aggressive flavor of the Campari does not integrate into the final drink as completely as the originally called for bitters, but instead hangs out on the margins, leaving a hint of “what is that?” bitterness around the edges.

A Brief Note on Gin 

Johnson calls for Plymouth in the original recipe, and that is not a bad idea, but do not fret if you don’t have any on hand.  A nice assertive London Dry actually works better in this cocktail, particularly Bombay Dry or Beefeater as they have the bracing juniper backbone to stand up to the other ingredients.

Some Recipes:

Bijou

¾ oz Plymouth or London Dry Gin
¾ oz Dolin Sweet Vermouth
¾ oz Green Chartreuse
1 dash Regan’s Orange Bitters

Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass with cracked ice and stir until very cold.  Strain into a chilled cocktail glass and squeeze the oils from a freshly cut piece of lemon peel atop the drink and discard peel. Garnish with a cherry.

Bijou, Aperitif Version

1 ½ oz. London Dry Gin
½ oz Dolin Sweet Vermouth
½ oz Green Chartreuse
1 dash Regan’s Orange Bitters

Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass with cracked ice and stir until very cold.  Strain into a chilled cocktail glass and squeeze the oils from a freshly cut piece of lemon peel atop the drink and discard peel.

Amber Dream

1 ½ oz London Dry Gin
¾ oz Dolin Sweet Vermouth
¼ oz Yellow Chartreuse
1 dash Regan’s Orange Bitters

Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass with cracked ice and stir until very cold.  Strain into a chilled cocktail glass and squeeze the oils from a freshly cut piece of orange peel atop the drink and discard peel.

Enjoy.

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