Letters: What was that green stuff?


While reading a recent "Dowd on Drinks," it suddenly occurred to me that your encyclopedic knowledge of adult beverages might be able to solve a 25-year-old mystery.

Long before Sebastian's bar in Latham, NY, became a strip club, it was a popular hangout for employees of Factron, an electronics manufacturer. Sometime in the early 1980s, I was wasting oxygen there with a bevy of co-workers, chatting with the barmaid.

As we were still young and foolish instead of just foolish, we were discussing the various bottles of alcoholic beverages visible behind the bar. This led to taste-testing, conducted without benefit of scientific reasoning, or, for that matter, without much reasoning at all.

In a rather non-prominent place was a bottle containing a bright green liquid, and somebody asked what it was. The barmaid, acting somewhat surprised that it was there, said she had no idea. She took down the dust-coated bottle and we passed it around. It had a brand name (which of course I cannot remember), but none of us, including the barmaid, had ever heard of it.

We tasted it. It was rather sweet but might be good as a minor ingredient in certain cocktails. More importantly, all agreed that its taste was something we had experienced before. Yet we could not identify it. Suddenly someone shouted "Circus peanuts!" Everyone else said "That's it!" as we remembered the orange marshmallow-like confections we had occasionally consumed as children.

Every now and then, I wonder what that beverage was. Circus peanuts have a distinctive flavor, but I don't know what that flavor is.

Any thoughts?

Michael D. Trout, Selkirk, NY


I love a good mystery, and this one is particularly intriguing.

"Circus peanuts" are made by four different companies (no one ever bothered trademarking the name), so the ingredients might vary slightly from one manufacturer to another. However, they are marshmallows made of sugar, corn syrup or high-fructose cporn sweetener plus gelatin, pectin, maybe even soy powder and some color plus a bit of artificial flavoring.

I suspect it's the latter element that piques the curiosity and may cauise some differences of opinion. Melster, Brach’s, Farley and Spangler are the four manufacturers, and Melster makes many of the candies for other brands.

Candy aficionadoes have often remarked that Circus Peanuts, while of indeterminate flavor, usually are most like banana. Using that as a basis, the closest I can come to banana flavor and a green liqueur -- without it actually being banana-infused -- is, ta da!, Chartreuse Green. (I rule out creme de menthe since you made no mention of a minty smell or taste in your mystery liquid.)

Chartreuse Green (there is a yellow version as well) is one of those ancient potions created by 16th century monks -- in this instance the Carthusian order located near Grenoble, France -- who didn't have anything better to do. It's a 110-proof liqueur made up of 130 plant ingredients, and the precise recipe and proces usually are known to only two monks at a time as a security measure.

While it can be mixed in a cocktail, to get the true experience Chartreuse should be chilled and sampled on the rocks.

(See Michael's response under "Comments.")

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Michael Trout said...

Wow. Thanks, Bill, you've gone way above and beyond the call of duty.

Yes, it's the "bit of artificial flavoring" in circus peanuts that prompts much discussion. And I agree that they are of "indeterminate flavor" but are more like banana than any other flavor I can think of.

Your green chartreuse suggestion is most intriguing. At first I was skeptical, but then I realized that I cannot recall ever having tasted green chartreuse. And if I remember correctly, green chartreuse is not really a heavy green color like creme de menthe, but more like green with a bit of yellow in it. ...

My wife was also at first skeptical of the green chartreuse idea (she has heard the story from me, but it happened long before I met her). At one time she lived in Grenoble for a year, right next to the Carthusian monastary, and was somewhat familiar with green chartreuse. But the more she thought about it, the more she thought you might be on to something.

So now the list of Christmas gifts for me includes a bottle of green chartreuse. I'll let you know what I think.

Carla in Kentucky said...

Gentlemen I think the alcohol in question here is Midori. It's fruity (melon) and bright green and very likely to be found behind a bar in the 80s. (Big marketing push to get it into the commercial market at that time.

MaxMurphy13 said...

Can it be purchased at any common liquor store? Thanks.

-- Max Murphy, Falls Church, VA

William M. Dowd said...

Yes, any decently stocked spirits shop will have Chartreuse Green or even Chartreuse Yellow. The 750ml bottle of the Green retails for anywhere from $38 to $41, so you may want to shop around. Half-bottles go for about $23.

If you can’t find a bottle locally, there are numerous online vendors who stock it.

Felix said...

Hmm, I'm not really convinced by either green Chartreuse or Midori; chartreuse is uch too herbal for a sweet oily taste like banana to really come through, and Midori is melons thorugh and through.
On the other hand, Pisang Ambon is a green, banana based liqueur. Not quite as rabidly green as midori either. Just a thought. good luck getting hold of a bottle, though.