That’s not to say that liqueurs aren’t essential. Most classic cocktails call for a small amount of one as the secondary or tertiary ingredient. Yet it’s exceedingly rare that a liqueur is held in the same high regard as a fine whiskey or brandy, or even a great tequila or rum. Though the average liqueur worth buying is usually pushing $40 or more, the cost rarely rivals the fantasy price tags associated with, say, aged Scotch or cognac.
There are, of course, exceptions. The extra-aged VEP (vieillissement exceptionnellement prolonge) versions of Chartreuse, both green and yellow, are among the finest spirits in the world, with prices nearing $200 a bottle. Even more coveted by collectors are Chartreuse’s rare Tarragona bottlings, which can top $1,000 at auction. Chartreuse is famously produced by Carthusian monks in the French Alps, and the secret 130-ingredient herbal recipe supposedly is known by only two monks, both of whom have taken a vow of silence. In 1903, the French government nationalized the monks’ distillery, so they moved to Tarragona, Spain; they continued to produce liqueur there until the 1980s, even after their eventual return to France. Chartreuse made in Tarragona has taken on mythic quality among spirits geeks. I recently saw a half-empty bottle offered for sale at $500.
While I was researching my book a few years ago, I found three of the bottles in Paris, in the dusty cellar of a rare bottle shop called Au Verger de la Madeleine, but I couldn’t quite scrounge up the 800 euros to acquire one, so I’ve personally tasted just a tiny nip of the stuff once in my life. (Note: To any reader out there who happens to have a bottle tucked away, I will make a shameless plea. Please invite me over? Please?)
Last week, I did have the pleasure of sampling a few ounces of another astronomically priced liqueur. This was Grand Marnier Quintessence, of which only 1,000 bottles have been released in the United States. Retail price: $799.99.
I always have the regular Grand Marnier (made from a blend of cognacs and distilled bitter oranges) in my liquor cabinet, along with Cointreau or Combier. Quintessence uses much older, higher-quality cognacs, including some 60-year-old special reserves. It’s also made with a special “double parfum” process, in which the orange peels are distilled a second time in the perfume of the first distillation.