Bon Appétit

Chartreuse, Victim of Its Own Success in the U.S.

Catapulted into the spotlight by the cocktail renaissance, this mysterious liqueur made by monks in the Isère département of France has gained a huge following in America. But the holy men of the Chartreuse Mountains have decided to ignore skyrocketing demand to avoid overharvesting the 130 different plants, herbs, and spices used in a recipe kept secret for more than 250 years. Instead, they are spending more time in prayer. A story of a French-American shortage, pitting monastic life against capitalism.
© Nicolas Villio/Chartreuse Diffusion

At Shelter, a trendy Brooklyn pizzeria, the couple sitting at the bar had the last word. But really, the very last one. The mixologist serving them used the remaining drops of her final bottle of Chartreuse to make them a Last Word, a century-old cocktail with lime, gin, maraschino, and green Chartreuse. “These past few months, it’s been one of our most popular cocktails,” she said. “But we’ve had to take it off the menu.” For months, the liqueur made in the foothills of the French Alps has been almost impossible to find in the United States.

The Chartreuse shortage is unprecedented. Panicked by the news, American connoisseurs have been raiding liquor stores, sharing little-known spots, and posting stock updates on Reddit. The luckiest ones are showing off their glasses of #MonkJuice on social media, while the wealthiest are trying their luck at auctions. Last March, two bottles from 1953 were sold to American buyers for 37,500 dollars each! Others are making the pilgrimage to the source: the Grande Chartreuse monastery and the cellars of Voiron, a small city near Grenoble.

The “green witch” crossed the Atlantic in the early 20th century and became an elite drink appreciated by chefs and bartenders alike. On the night the Titanic sank in 1912, first-class passengers were enjoying peaches set in Chartreuse jelly. A few years later, the Last Word was invented at the bar of the highly select Detroit Athletic Club. In The Great Gatsby (1925), F. Scott Fitzgerald’s protagonist shares a bottle of Chartreuse with the narrator. Chartreuse Diffusion, the company promoting and selling the liqueur for the monks, now plays on the contrast between the luxurious lifestyles of these early ambassadors and the beverage’s monastic origins.

Jealously Guarded Know-How

Chartreuse was first invented in 1764. According to legend, the congregation’s apothecary adapted a recipe for an elixir of long life to create this liqueur, which weighs in at between 43% (yellow Chartreuse) and 55% (green). The Carthusian monks, who have lived in Isère since the 11th century, are the sole guardians of the recipe. It is not patented and there is only one written record – in Latin. The secret has been passed down from generation to generation, shared between three distillers. Originally transported by donkey to surrounding towns, some 1.6 million bottles of Chartreuse are now exported worldwide every year, including 400,000 to the United States, its leading importer.

The French liqueur, with its notes of aniseed, tarragon, and fennel, is particularly suited for cocktails. One example is the Alaska, a blend of gin and yellow Chartreuse, whose newfound popularity took the monks by surprise. In the 2000s, according to The Washington Post, a group of U.S. mixologists visited the monastery. “What are you doing with [all this] Chartreuse?” asked one of the distillers, surprised by his suddenly increased workload. “Well, we make cocktails,” replied one of the Americans. The monk, who only tries his own product once a year, at Easter, was bemused: “What’s a cocktail?”

The Grande Chartreuse monastery, between Grenoble and Chambéry. © Thomas Pueyo/Le Parisien

In a stark contrast to the daily lives of those who distill it, Chartreuse continued its American ascension. In 2007, it made a surprise appearance in Quentin Tarantino’s movie Death Proof. Playing a bartender, the director pours a round of shots for a group of customers, who are astonished by the strange, green liquid. Tarantino declares: “[It’s] Chartreuse, the only liqueur so good they named a color after it.”

In 2020, all bars closed during the pandemic and sales of Chartreuse plummeted by two thirds. “That world sank in a dramatic way,” said the export director of Chartreuse Diffusion in an interview with The New York Times. This was particularly true for the monks, whose community is exclusively financed by their production of the liqueur. Faced with the public health crisis, the brand decided to revisit its sales strategy: “We turned to what was open.” Generally, this meant liquor stores, and the new framework came with a novel challenge: How could they convince customers to consume Chartreuse at home?

The Monks Take a Step Back

Lockdowns and the triumphant return of vintage spirits saw a rise in hobby mixology, and Chartreuse joined Suze, Cognac, Armagnac, and absinthe on personal bar carts across the world. In the United States, the liqueur’s sales doubled in three years. However, since the beginning of2023, American drinkers have been struggling to get their hands on the stuff. Believe it or not, this shortage is due to an astonishing decision from the distillers. In a letter shared widely across social media, Chartreuse Diffusion explained that the monks were “limiting production to focus on their primary goal: to protect their monastic life and devote their time to solitude and prayer.”

This is not the first time that the liqueur’s success has clashed with its producers’ lifestyles. As far back as the 19th century, the Vatican stated that the religious order of the Chartreuse Mountains were monks, not businessmen, and so should it remain. “[They] are not in this to drive Mercedes and live lavish lives,” said a spokesperson from Frederick Wildman & Sons, the New York business that imports the liqueur to the United States. Meanwhile, a teasing Wall Street Journal article recently quipped: “The monks who make Chartreuse don’t care about your fancy cocktails.”

Throwing off ancestral equilibrium simply to bolster production volume and satisfy mixology enthusiasts is out of the question. The monks are determined to “do less but better and for longer.” As part of their commitment to sustainable growth, they are also keen to preserve the environment of the Chartreuse Mountains. Nestled in the heart of the “emerald of the French Alps” so dear to Stendhal, the monks already harvest more than 40 tons of plants every year. Given the climate crisis, they now want to “consider biodiversity by limiting the harvesting of plants used in the liqueur’s recipe,” some of which are already becoming rare.

As a result, the United States will be limited to 90% of the volume imported in 2021. This quota has triggered a (green and yellow) gold rush among distributors and consumers alike. But is this just an ingenious marketing ploy? By embracing degrowth, Chartreuse is cultivating its scarcity while maintaining the mystique surrounding its natural, artisanal production. While Chartreuse Diffusion must now strike a balance between developing its business and respecting the monks’ wishes, the life of the small mountain community is continuing as before, staying true to its motto: Stat crux dum volvitur orbis, “the cross remains steady while the world turns.”

Article published in the July-August 2023 issue of France-AmériqueSubscribe to the magazine.