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  • Writer's pictureCraig Stoltz

Praying for more Chartreuse

So the Carthusian monks who make Chartreuse -- the deliriously delicious herbal liqueur used in both classic and contemporary cocktails, favorite of the sleeve tattoo and leather apron crowd behind the bar, made from a recipe comprising 130 botanicals said to be known by only three silent monks in the French monastery where it is made -- have begun to exercise monopoly power.

Diffusion Chartreuse S.A, the French corporation operated by the hermits, has quietly decided to reduce global supply. The U.S. is down to 90 percent of its 2021 allocation, following a surge in demand over the last few years. Bartenders are fretting. Shelves are emptying. Fans are bereft.

And why is this happening? Because, the New York Times reports, the monks who have been making it exclusively since the 18th century have decided to spend more time...praying. It turns out that even for monks, time is immutable. The more hours you spend tending to the liquor business, the fewer available for activities of godliness.

I admire anyone who can devote their lives to matters of the spirit, sustain a community against the onslaught of modernism, and work with humility at the simple tasks of this earthly life.

But the monks operate under the unforgiving earthly laws of economics. They have created scarcity of a product whose supply they exclusively control. Prices have jumped. Operating costs have gone down.

A history of the Chartreuse business

The story of the monks’ modern Chartreuse venture began in 1605, when the Carthusians received the recipe as a gift from François-Annibal d'Estrées, a French military man who later became supreme leader of the king’s military. Let’s be fair to the monks (and we should be rigorously fair to the monks). Maybe the “Elixir of Life” manuscript didn’t come to d'Estrées as the spoils of war. Maybe the King’s lead warrior “charmed” it away from its anonymous owners or won it at a charity auction. The written sources, like the monks, are silent on the issue.

The business started slowly. It took 100 years of puzzling over the manuscript to produce a primitive herbal liquid. The product came out red. It was used to treat bad humors and so forth.

After the monks created a drinkable recipe sometime around 1737, the enterprise suffered existential challenges. There were eight fires, an avalanche, and the plague. The political earthquakes were worse. To grossly understate, monks of any sort did not fare well during either the French Revolution or Napoleon’s reign. At various times the factory was occupied, vandalized, and nationalized. The hermits fled. But the monks always managed to find refuge, passing the secret written recipe from hand to hand.

At length, times became too hard for monks on the run. The written recipe was sold to sustain the order.

When Napoleon was eventually dispatched to Elba and the monks allowed back into the wrecked factory, it was discovered that someone had, miraculously, kept notes on the recipe. Production began in the 1820s.

Chartreuse comes to market

In the monks’ first happy reversal of fortune, the complete written recipe itself was soon located. It had fallen into the hands of a nobleman’s widow. In 1835, she extracted 3,000 francs from the monks in exchange. That’s close to 100,000 Euros today.

The monks got a good deal.

They perfected the recipe, creating something like what we now recognize as the transcendent adult beverage in the green bottle. (There were some product failures en route, including a Chartreuse toothpaste.) Green Chartreuse was marketed exclusively by word of mouth. So popular was their product that others tried to produce counterfeits under the Chartreuse name. The monks repeatedly went to court to protect their intellectual property. They always prevailed.

More recently, Chartreuse has had a cultural moment thanks to the craft cocktail renaissance, where 19th century drinks using Chartreuse, like the beloved Last Word (a vow-of-silence joke?), resurfaced to a new generation of mixologists and their patrons. One bar in Washington D.C. has Chartreuse on tap.

The Drunk Monk

I’ve created a Chartreuse recipe myself, and Old Fashioned riff: 2 oz rye, 1/4 oz green Chartreuse, 1/8 oz simple syrup, dash of orange bitters. Stir, serve over a fat cube of ice, run a lip of orange peel around the rim and drop it in. I call it the Drunk Monk.

The monks have done very well with Chartreuse, funding their own monastery, sending money up the chain to Rome headquarters, and making generous charitable contributions. Today their revenue is $30 million.

In the factory, located near but not in the monastery, advanced distillery equipment and manufacturing machinery produce tens of thousands of bottles. It’s said that monks sit at monitors to keep an eye on the production floor. Distribution is worldwide. Over the past 10 years or so, bottles have retailed for $50 to $60.

Which brings us to the current day. No liquor store in my county can get Chartreuse. Online, it’s $200 and up. Bottles have vanished from their top-shelf perches at cocktail bars. Some mixologists have taken Chartreuse drinks off the menu.

Setting Chartreuse free

The immutable laws of commerce tell us what happens next. Somewhere, entrepreneurs are undoubtedly working to reverse-engineer the precious liquid, or use DNA sequencing, or, I don’t know, float some crazy AI bot in the stuff. Inferior imitators under sly names are surely coming to market. (I should copyright the Drunk Monk.)

There is a way out. Perhaps the monks should provide a lasting gift to mankind and release the secret recipe. They can publish it on their website and let a thousand herbal flowers bloom.

It’s presumptuous of me, but I like to think the holy spirits would be pleased.

Travel note: It is possible to tour the facility where Chartreuse is made in Voiron, France. Get info here.


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