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Where Has All the Chartreuse Gone?
On the Carthusian monks' decision to limit production of their famed liqueur and what it says about quality and scale in our soul-crushing modern world.
Last month, a letter from the Carthusian monks in Voiron, France circulated through the world of spirits. It was, in the hackneyed parlance of journalism, a “bombshell.” The letter explains a decision by the monks to limit the production of Charteuse, their famed Alpine liqueur dating to 1605, in order “to focus on their primary goal: protect their monastic life and devote their time to solitude and prayer.”
Apparently this decision had been made quietly in 2021 (quietly being how most decisions are made in a monastic order sworn to a vow of silence). A growing Chartreuse shortage started being noticed by spirits enthusiasts during 2022. The drinks website Punch verified the letter a couple of weeks ago. Chartreuse will now only be sold exclusively under allocation, making it much more difficult to find. From the monks’ letter:
Making millions of cases does not make any sense in today’s environmental content and will have a negative impact on the planet in the very short term…Basically, we look to do less but better and for longer.
First of all, allow me to applaud this stance by the Carthusian monks. I deeply admire their willingness to say “enough” to the relentless market forces pushing them to produce more, more, more, at all costs. It’s honestly inspiring that the monks refuse to see their earthly purpose as satisfying the demands of some knucklehead mixologist doing his little riff on the Last Word at some lame speakeasy in some third-tier city.
Less but better and for longer. What a refreshing thing to hear in 2023. In nearly every other realm of our soul-crushing age, the focus is to scale everything as big as possible, quality be damned. As someone who operates in a media industry that values an endless stream of cheap, SEO-driven clickbait over well-written, thoughtful content that costs effort and money to produce, I stand with the monks.
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Realizing, however, the local impact of this decision by the monks, I admit to driving around the Philadelphia metro area this week, on a mission. I visited about about a dozen stores, mostly in South Jersey, looking for whatever bottles of Chartreuse I could find on the dusty shelves. I was only able to locate two bottles of yellow at one store ($57), a single bottle of green at another ($62). Yes, I bought all three bottles, sorry.
The other night, deep in my liquor cabinet, I also found a mostly-full bottle of the green, I’d cracked open. I used to drink a lot of Chartreuse during my cocktail writing heyday, the Boozehound era. Chartreuse used to be a pretty typical shot for bartenders (after Fernet Branca). Though I realized I hadn’t tasted any in a long time.
Given the shortage, I hesitantly poured a scant ounce of that green Chartreuse for myself, and sipped it neat. “Oh hell yes, that’s the good stuff,” I thought with each tiny sip. It was almost emotional. It felt somehow right to pair this glass with Peter, Paul, and Mary’s melancholy rendition of “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”
Wait, Back Up. What Is Chartreuse?
Chartreuse is a liqueur so legendary that a color is literally named after it. It was first produced in the early 18th century by the Carthusian monks, based on a secret 1605 recipe for an “elixir for long life”—with 130 different herbs, plants, and flowers—that was created by a medieval alchemist. Even today, the only people who know the full recipe are three monks—and the two that actually make the liqueur each only know half the formula. As I mentioned, they’ve taken a vow of silence. Yes, it all sounds like a fairy tale, but I swear it’s all true.
There are two types of Chartreuse: Green, beautifully fiery and intense, clocks in at 110 proof; Yellow, rounder and more honeyed, is 86 proof. Both are amazing to drink neat, but each is distinct and in cocktails each has it own particular uses. Chartreuse is also one of the few liqueurs can be aged in oak, and the monastery releases special, extra-aged VEP bottles that sell upwards of $300 to $500.
But what sets Chartreuse furthest apart is that it’s one of the few spirits that changes and evolves. With 130 natural, botanical ingredients—such as gentian, genepi, fennel, lemon verbena, star anise, angelica, cumin—it’s no surprise that there may be some variation over the centuries.
My Chartreuse sherpa has always been Joaquín Simó, who owned the dearly departed Pouring Ribbons in the East Village (closed last spring). Pouring Ribbons had one of the best Chartreuse stashes in the world, regularly offering a changing selection of pours from decades past. “I’ve opened bottles that smell like a Chinese herbalist shop and others that smell like an Indian spice market,” Simo once told me.
The rarest, most expensive bottles of Chartreuse in the world are those that were made before and during a period of exile. In 1903, the French government tried to nationalize the distillery and the monks, unwilling to give up the secret, moved from Voiron, France to Tarragona, Spain. They operated that Tarragona distillery until the 1980s. Today, the Tarragona bottlings of Chartreuse have taken on mythical status, and fetch well over $1,000 a bottle…if you can find them.
“There is so much going on in the glass. It’s a fascinating combination of flavors and aromas,” is how Simó once described it to me. “When people try Chartreuse and like, they really like it. And they end up going down a rabbit hole.”
I have gone down that rabbit hole. I once paid $75 for a one-ounce taste of a 1970s Tarragona. I’ve also paid $50 for an ounce of 1960s green Chartreuse. But neither compare to the $125 I once paid to taste one solitary ounce of yellow Chartreuse from the 1940s. I would imagine those prices will only rise now as Chartreuse gets even more scarce.
I can’t say if any of those ounces was truly an elixir that will lead to a long life. But I really liked them all.
Cocktails To Make With Chartreuse (If You Can Find It)
Sometimes a martini variation eschews the vermouth altogether, such as this bold, botanical drink that appears in numerous 20th-century cocktail guides. Why it is named after the 49th state? Who knows? Be sure to use yellow Chartreuse, which is lower in proof and more honeyed than green Chartreuse.
2 ounces London dry gin
¾ ounce yellow Chartreuse
2 dashes orange bitters
Lemon peel twist
Combine liquid ingredients in a mixing glass. Add ice and stir vigorously, then strain into a cocktail glass. Express lemon peel over the top, then add as garnish.
1 ounce gin
1 ounce sweet vermouth
1 ounce green Chartreuse
2 dashes orange bitters
Lemon peel twist
Combine ingredients in a mixing glass with ice and stir until chilled. Strain into a stemmed cocktail glass and garnish with cherry and lemon peel, expressing the oil over the drink and letting the cherry sink to the bottom, like a jewel.
Verte Chaud with Chartreuse-Spiked Whipped Cream
A Verte Chaud is made by adding a shot of green Chartreuse to a mug of hot chocolate. For years, it’s been a popular après-ski drink in the French Alps. I like topping my Verte Chaud with this Chartreuse-spiked whipped cream.
1 cup heavy cream
2 ounces green Chartreuse
2 ounces simple syrup
Pinch of salt
In a mixing bowl or stand mixer, whip together all ingredients to medium peaks. Use a generous dollop in your spiked hot chocolate.
This Sidecar variation, with the addition of Chartreuse, is better than the original. Many Champs Élysées recipes call for green Chartreuse, and also a measure of simple syrup. I use yellow Chartreuse (slightly sweeter and rounder) and skip the simple syrup.
2 ounces Cognac
¾ ounce yellow Chartreuse
½ ounce freshly squeezed lemon juice
Dash of orange bitters
Orange peel twist
Combine liquid ingredients in a mixing glass. Add ice and stir vigorously, then strain into a cocktail glass. Express orange peel over the top, then add as garnish.