Chartreuse lovers everywhere panicked in January when word went around on social media that the French Carthusian monks responsible for making the neon green spirit had decided to limit its production.
Yet, as with many things related to the vegetal liqueur, the shortage was not what it seemed.
“The monks are total liars,” said Paul Einbund, sommelier and owner of the restaurant The Morris in San Francisco.
Einbund is a Chartreuse enthusiast of the next order: “Grand Master of the Green and Yellow Stuff,” is how he describes his job. He’s the one responsible for overseeing what must be the city’s largest and most valuable Chartreuse list—29 vintages in total, one of which pours at $800 an ounce.
The monks are not decreasing production, Einbund said. Rather, they are refusing to increase it to meet the ballooning demand, which has made it more difficult to procure.
But while Einbund might not be able to buy as much as he used to, the restaurant’s popular $14 Chartreuse slushy remains on the menu—a skyscraper-tall beverage expertly balanced by bartender Jack Cholin and crafted from only three ingredients: palm sugar syrup, lemon juice and green Chartreuse.
The Morris doesn’t restrict its use of Chartreuse to the bar, either. Chef Gavin Schmidt’s dinner menu has dashes of it in the rabbit terrine and in the sauce for the strawberry olive oil cake. The restaurant also serves a Chartreuse cappuccino, an updated take on the “green chaud” that’s made from hot chocolate and green Chartreuse and served on ski slopes in the Alps.
Once relegated to virtual obscurity, Chartreuse came into popularity in the early aughts, thanks to the Seattle bartender Murray Stenson, who resuscitated the pre-Prohibition cocktail known as the Last Word, which incorporates the monk-made liqueur.
Then came another, closer-to-home milestone—local bartender Marco Dionysos’ invention of the Chartreuse Swizzle, a tiki-inspired cocktail that set fire to bar menus across San Francisco: Smuggler’s Cove, the former Harry Denton’s Starlight Room and the Clock Bar among them.
“People have been falling in love with Chartreuse,” Einbund said.
So has Einbund. The evidence is everywhere of his decadeslong romance: a Chartreuse ballcap, a tattoo that includes four bottles of the spirit, the many Chartreuse tasting courses on his Instagram page.
It’s not only the high-proof liqueur that’s so intoxicating, but also its backstory, one steeped in romance and lore that can lead to obsessive tendencies.
The neon green spirit is made from 130 herbs and plants, a large portion of which are native to the landscape of the French Alps that the Carthusian order of monks calls home. (The name “Chartreuse” refers to the mountain range where the monastery is located). The beverage comes in green and yellow varieties, the latter being sweeter and lower proof—and also the only liqueur to lend its name to a color.
Only two monks, who are sworn to vows of silence in both life and liqueur-making, know the recipe. In 1605, the Carthusians allegedly received a secret elixir for long life in an archaic language from François Annibal d’Estrées. It took them more than 150 years to decode instructions like “pick herbs at midnight, allow to macerate till morning dew.”
“It’s really more of a poem than a recipe,” Einbund said.
The sommelier pointed out that the monks have claimed the recipe has never been written down—but they’ve also stated that the formula has been stolen, something that would have necessitated it being written down somewhere.
“They contradict themselves all the time,” he said.
The less romantic version of Chartreuse’s origin story? That the monks needed to make money to support the monastery, Einbund said.
The globe-and-cross design on Chartreuse bottles is accompanied by a Latin inscription that means “the world spins, but the cross remains,” a nod to the faith of its creators. The seven stars symbolize the Carthusians’ founders, including Saint Bruno, who heeded the voice of God that told him to go to the mountains and pray.
“Today, we send people to the asylum when they hear voices, but back then, you were considered a saint,” Einbund said.
The Carthusian order (which includes monks and nuns) live by codes of austerity and silence, receiving their meals through hatches in their cell-like rooms and wearing white hooded robes that obscure their faces.
The image of shrouded, silent monks—especially Brother Jean-Jacques and Father Dom Benoit, the only two monks who have access to the herb room and the recipe—mystifies Chartreuse, and popular culture follows suit. In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Nick, Daisy and Gatsby drink the liqueur, in what feels like an echo of the green light flashing from Tom and Daisy’s boat dock. Since then, artists ranging from Tom Waits to Hunter S. Thompson, from Quentin Tarantino to ZZ Top, have enthusiastically embraced the secretive potion.
The spirit also continues to gain monetary as well as symbolic value. In March, the largest Chartreuse auction in history occurred in Geneva, with all 648 lots sold. The biggest ticket item was two bottles of green and Chartreuse VEP Yellow distilled in 1953 and bottled in 1966 marking the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, which sold for $36,561.
But Einbund’s most valuable vintage is one he won’t even pour—a bottle of 1960s green Chartreuse in a custom Limoges bottle that could be worth $20,000. Even the monks don’t have that one, he said.
As with everything Chartreuse, there’s much left unsaid and even more that remains a mystery.
“I know a lot about Chartreuse,” Einbund said. “And I probably know nothing about Chartreuse.”
Julie Zigoris can be reached at email@example.com