I spend far too much of my time trying to figure out how to “go viral,” yet some Carthusian monks — who have taken a vow of silence! — had no problem doing it twice last year.

In the spring, rumors began circulating that Chartreuse, the much-ballyhooed French herbal liqueur, had suddenly become hard to find. Countless fans took to social media to decry the shortage, question if others had any leads on bottles, posit conspiracies, or flex when they actually found a bottle.

By April, even the The New York Times had covered the story, reporting that the monks had simply declined to increase production to match rising demand.

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And, oh, how the demand had risen in the last two decades-plus, as the liqueur went from the domain of wealthy U.S. Francofiles to little-discussed mystery elixir to college party drink to something that needed to be mansplained by Quentin Tarantino in his movie “Death Proof”… to, finally, an industry darling.

All this is to say that by last year, global Chartreuse sales were at 1.6 million bottles per year — the highest number since the late-1800s — with Chartreuse sales having doubled in the U.S. ever since the pandemic started in 2020.

I’ve even neglected to mention that in November of last year, the monks again went viral when they announced they were opening a visitors center in Paris, making many folks question whether there had ever been a Chartreuse shortage in the first place. Though, at least in Brooklyn where I live, finding bottles of any of the five American releases — standard Green and Yellow, the oak-aged VEPs (French for “exceptionally prolonged aging”) of both colors, and Élixir Végétal de la Grande-Chartreuse, a 69 percent ABV release claiming to be a health tonic — at retail remains nearly impossible.

It was enough to make one reminisce about the days when no one cared about this weird, herbal liqueur.

The Monk’s Monopoly

You want to be a monk, and now you have all these cocktail hipsters clamoring for your booze, getting in the way of your praying and not talking. Of course, it wasn’t always that way. Throughout much of drinking history, Chartreuse was, at best, a foreign curio and, at worst, completely ignored by the mainstream.

In 1084 the Carthusian order was formed and the monks founded their monastery in the Chartreuse mountain range in southeastern France. They were apparently making liqueur since perhaps the early 1600s, but at least since the 1700s. The recipe would be honed, tweaked, and finally perfected over the years until 1840, when Green and Yellow Chartreuse were formalized and began being sold to support the order. (A 78,000 euro bottle today if you can find one.)

The New York Times was founded a decade later but it would take until 1876 for the newspaper to mention the liqueur, in an obituary for Dom Louis Garnier, the monk who supposedly invented the current Green and Yellow incarnations. Back then, total bottle sales were earning the monks the “large sum” of $400,000 per year.

“The pre-Expulsion Chartreuse has all the delightful qualities of the new, plus tragic wisdom. The difference resembles that between ‘As You Like It’ and ‘The Tempest.’”

The Times, in fact, would cover the monks quite a bit over the final two decades of the 19th century, including a big article in 1889 about “The Chartreuse Secret,” calling it a “monopoly that millions cannot buy,” perhaps foreshadowing this current era of allocation. By then Pope Leo XIII had even offered the monks $16 million to turn over the recipes to the Vatican — the Carthusians rejected it.

In 1903 the monks were expelled from their monastery by an anti-clerical French government, and their property, including the distillery (though not their recipes), was confiscated. This was extensively reported in the papers, whether discussing the monks transferring their rights to an American syndicate, detailing the daily life of Carthusians now living in Austria and Belgium, the order purchasing a Scottish island, and finally selling the original location to an English syndicate for $3,000,000.

In fact, the way The New York Times covers the goings-on of the monks, you would think Americans of the first decade of the 1900s spent as much time talking about Chartreuse as they did Theodore Roosevelt, the Wright Brothers, or the Model T.

Ultimately, the monks took refuge in Tarragona, Catalonia, in Spain for a few decades, where they set up their own shop and began producing Chartreuse with a new label that said “Liqueur fabriquée à Tarragone par les Pères Chartreux” (“liqueur manufactured in Tarragona by the Carthusian Fathers”).

By 1929 some monks had been allowed to return to France, though Chartreuse continued to be produced concurrently in Tarragona until 1989.

Vintage Chartreuse

While researching my recent book, “Dusty Booze: In Search of Vintage Spirits,” I was stunned to learn that collecting vintage spirits is not a strictly modern phenomenon. In fact, well-to-do people used to collect vintage Chartreuse!

A top collector of this era, Eric Witz, tipped me off to a hilariously pretentious New Yorker article from 1956 that details a vintage Chartreuse tasting on Manhattan’s Upper East Side that year.

“We were disconcerted recently to find ourself the sole acolyte at an exceedingly esoteric alcoholic ceremony — a comparative tasting of post-Expulsion and pre-Expulsion Chartreuse,” the piece began.

It was held at the Hotel Westbury, on East 66th Street and Madison Avenue. The writer joined two New York importers of the monk-made libation along with a local wine expert, William Massee, to taste modern versions of the “supreme contemporary cordial,” according to the article, as well as versions of Green and Yellow that had been produced sometime between 1878 and 1903, right before the monks were expelled. The article notes that, even in 1956, these rarities were selling for $150 a bottle (about $1,700 in today’s dollars).

None of this troika of experts thought the dusty Chartreuse would taste much different from what they could have gotten at the corner store at that time. Massee dismissed it as “an old gourmets’ tale” that the liqueur would have somehow evolved, stating that anything more than 15 proof was incapable of changing in the bottle.

Of course, if there’s long been a debate about whether spirits such as a bourbon or Scotch change once in the bottle, it quickly becomes evident to anyone who tries it that Chartreuse absolutely transforms in the bottle, and even Massee would immediately realize that as well. The pre-expulsion liquids had become paler in color, less sharp, more delicate, drier, and even more herbaceous.

“The pre-Expulsion Chartreuse,” claimed the writer, “has all the delightful qualities of the new, plus tragic wisdom. The difference resembles that between ‘As You Like It’ and ‘The Tempest.’”

Swampwater and Modern Problems

Unfortunately, Chartreuse would mostly fall out of favor in America, certainly among the mainstream, over the ensuing decades, post World War II. If, in 1956, Upper East Side snobs were comparing different vintages of Chartreuse to various Shakespeare plays, most New Yorkers of that era had probably never even tasted it. Certainly it wasn’t being drunk in less cosmopolitan places.

In fact, as far as I can tell, Chartreuse was not mentioned once in The New York Times between 1941 and 1972, and then it only reappeared in a cooking article about the same-named vegetable dish. In this era Chartreuse began jumping from importer to importer, too — no one seemed to want it: Shently from 1933 into the 1940s, Schieffelin and Sons from the 1940s until the mid-1970s, Sussex from then through 1981, and 21 Brands from 1981 to 1990.

(Looking at who imported it is the easiest way to pinpoint the era of a vintage bottle of Chartreuse. To exactly date a bottle of Chartreuse produced since 1991, when Frederick Wildman and Sons became the importer, which it still is today, look at the six-digit number on the lower gold band at the top of the bottle. Take the first three digits of that number and add it 1084 to get the bottling year.)

It was Chartreuse’s U.S. marketing team, however, that attempted to revive sales in the mid-1970s by creating a batchable party drink, having already seen the great success Galliano had had in getting consumers to drink the Italian liqueur in something the brand had created called the Harvey Wallbanger. Galliano sales reportedly increased 40 percent in the first year of the Wallbanger alone. If it was only so easy for Chartreuse.

“[Chartreuse] has always been a marketing problem child in the U.S.,” wrote Roy Andries de Groot in a 1975 Esquire article, calling it too strong and too sweet for American palates. “So the U.S. importers … have had to try one specialized promotion after another designed to get around the basic problem.”

Thus, the Swampwater, as Chartreuse’s marketers called it, was six ounces of pineapple juice and a quarter of a lime “supercharged with 110 proof Green Chartreuse,” claimed the ads, which showed branded Swampwater Mason jar glassware along with the note that the high-octane drink is “legal in all 50 states.” (Mind you, there would have been very, very few things bottled at higher than 100 proof during this time so it was a decent ploy.)

Other ads from the era encouraged youthful drinkers to have a “Swampwater Party,” now offering large-batch recipes that called for an entire bottle of Green Chartreuse alongside three quarts of pineapple juice and four-and-a-half limes. For $7.95 you could even mail order a Swampwater Game, a floor-sized, Twister-like competition you can sometimes still find for sale on eBay.

“Swampwater came out around the time of Harvey Wallbangers, Rusty Nails, Stingers, and Slow Comfortable Screws,” writes cook and “Drinking French” author David Leibovitz, who is arguably responsible for reviving modern interest in Swampwater when he penned a blog post about it in 2020.

Many credit Murray Stenson, however, a bartender at Seattle’s Zig Zag Café for ultimately resurrecting Chartreuse when he likewise resurrected the Green Chartreuse-spiked Last Word cocktail in 2003.

Despite these marketing efforts, however, by the 1980s Chartreuse was slumping. In 1980, sales finally dipped, breaking from a 3 to 4 percent annual growth rate the brand had shown since the 1940s. In 1984 The New York Times even wrote of “Modern Problems for an Old Liqueur”: “[S]ales have been falling, and the tactics most businesses would use to meet such a crisis are morally distasteful to many of the monks.”

“The monks don’t want us to grow too big,” said Louis Giordano, the president of Compagnie Française de la Grande Chartreuse, then the liqueur’s bottler and distributor. “There are currents inside the order worried about contributing to the alcoholization of the world. On the other hand, they know they need money to live and for their charitable works. It’s a real dilemma.”

A year before, the Carthusians had only earned $287,000 for the year off of 1 million bottle sales — that amount needed to support 460 members of the Carthusian order, who then lived in 24 monasteries around the world. (That’s a paltry $623 per monk per year.)

For comparison’s sake, at this same time Cointreau was selling around 8 million bottles per year and Grand Marnier 6 million bottles. Indeed, it was thought the high proof of Chartreuse was hampering it in this era where most drinkers were gravitating to “healthier” and “lighter” low-proof options like vodka, peach schnapps, and wine coolers.

The New York Times would only write about Chartreuse once in the entire 1990s, comparing it to chicken soup.

Naked and Finally Famous

It would take this modern cocktail renaissance — now in its 25th year! — to again return Chartreuse to its rightful glory. As bartenders worked their way through old cocktail books, trying to recreate classics from a past era like the Alaska and Bijou, they continued to encounter Chartreuse in the specs.

Many credit Murray Stenson, however, a bartender at Seattle’s Zig Zag Café for ultimately resurrecting Chartreuse when he likewise resurrected the Green Chartreuse-spiked Last Word cocktail in 2003, based on a recipe he had found in a 1951 book. Both quickly became handshakes of the cocktail bar cognoscenti. (Stenson died last year, important enough to receive a New York Times obituary.) Yet, even by 2009, The New York Times thought Chartreuse’s resurgence minor compared to that of absinthe, which had recently been legalized in the U.S. again after 95 years.

By the 2010s, Chartreuse — both Green and Yellow — was being put in almost everything, from the Death Flip (2010) to the Naked & Famous (2011) and the Piña Verde (2012), Erick Castro’s Piña Colada riff. There was even a bar, Pouring Ribbons, opened in New York’s East Village in 2012, which devoted a good portion of its menu to Chartreuse, both modern and vintage.

“There wasn’t any real demand for it [at the time],” says co-owner Joaquin Simó who, along with his partner Troy Sidle, gobbled up old bottles for sale on eBay. “We weren’t competing with anyone for this stuff.”

A little more than a decade later, Pouring Ribbons is closed, and now, finally, everyone is competing to find bottles of Chartreuse.