Chartreuse devotees find alternatives

01 February, 2024

Following the news that the famous monk-made liqueur was going to be harder to come by in quantities, several pioneers have stepped forward to carry the banner for a classic cocktail substitute.

“In 2021, the decision was made from the Carthusian monks to not increase their volume of production for the Chartreuse liqueurs. They are limiting production to focus on their primary goal: protect their monastic life and devote their time to solitude and prayer.”

So began the letter to “dear valuable partner” breaking the news in January 2023 that the monks who produce Chartreuse liqueurs were no longer growing the brand and the process of allocation for all existing markets had started.

Of the many reasons a brand may be unable to meet demand, protecting the producers’ monastic lives isn’t a common one.

The letter did offer other grounds, including: “Making millions of cases does not make sense in today’s environmental context and will have a negative impact on the planet in the very short term.” And, in its concluding paragraph, stated “basically, we look to do less but better and for longer”. Cue panic.

Haley Traub, general manager of New York’s Attaboy bar, says: “We started to notice the supply shortage due to the unique fact that we’ve always used the 37.5cl bottles of Chartreuse and all of a sudden couldn’t get them anymore – that was the first sign for us that things were slowing down and changing.

“The fact that this coincided with a global pandemic had a lot of people in the bar industry speculating as to whether it was a supply issue, or a change in production – something everyone had, of course, become familiar with during the pandemic with various other products. Once we received the official news, it was time to start thinking about how to pivot and accommodate going forward.”

Well maybe not panic then, but definitely consternation. It’s difficult to reason with a company that has priorities outside of the commercial.

The thing is, Chartreuse is a bartender favourite. The brand ranks third in the Drinks International Brands Report All-Time Liqueurs League, just behind Cointreau and Campari. And both the Green and Yellow expressions have inspired generations of bartenders, from Harry Johnson, who created the Bijou in the 1890s, and Frank Fogarty, who probably invented The Last Word around 1915, to Joaquín Símo and his 2011 creation the Naked & Famous and Ted Kilgore, who came up with the Industry Sour in St Louis the same year.

It’s worth noting that the monks aren’t producing less liqueur than before – quite the opposite. In a statement offered to last June, a spokesperson for Chartreuse Diffusion revealed that they’re producing more liquid now – 1.2 million litres per year – than at any time since the end of the 19th century. What’s changed is the demand – when the pandemic turned so many into at-home bartenders, sales in the US doubled from 2020-2023, according to Chartreuse Diffusion.

Enduring popularity

One of the reasons behind Chartreuse’s enduring inspiration and popularity is its idiosyncrasy – Chartreuse just tastes like Chartreuse, there really isn’t a mass-market alternative. So, the tap suddenly running dry was a big problem. And while bartenders around the world were suddenly forced to pivot, the shortage was particularly felt in the US.

“Bartenders have grown very spoiled in many parts of the US with our nearly unmitigated access to unique and rare spirits, specifically imports,” says Nora Furst of Portland-based Straightaway Cocktails.

“Many of us were brought up in bars where cocktail menus were designed around classic cocktails or riffs on classics. This means that we rely heavily on ingredients that are called out in pre and Prohibition-era cocktail builds – Chartreuse, Maraschino, Campari, Benedictine and so on.

“This isn’t unique only to cocktail programmes in the US, but we do have a rich and prominent role in cocktail history. It’s a small piece of our history in which we can feel prideful, but the combined force of our tie to American drinking traditions and our access to ingredients that allow us to continue to make these cocktails has boxed us into a world where all bars are expected to stock a similar set of modifiers, and be able to make a similar set of classic cocktails, staying true to their original recipe.”

The US relationship with classic cocktails had created a requirement for Chartreuse. And outside, paying way over the odds for an inconsistent supply, bartenders had to rethink their back bars.

“Creativity flourishes in times of scarcity, and the Chartreuse shortage was no exception,” says Furst.

“Pulling this tool out of our belts allowed us an opportunity to explore other tools out there that work differently, and often better than the original. It certainly pushed our Flora Green to the forefront of many minds as not only an excellent stand-in or alternative to Chartreuse, but highlighted the capabilities of verdant Alpine spirits that shine in their own right.”

Necessity often drives innovation; in this case it was exploration. As it turned out, a number of US-based brands, such as the aforementioned Straightaway Cocktails with its Accompani Flora Green, were already producing alternatives to Chartreuse, albeit largely under the radar. In 2021, also from Oregon, Elixir Craft Spirits launched Ver, California-based Brucato Amaro released Chaparral, and Brooklyn’s Faccia Brutto launched Centerbe.

“After researching amari for seven years, we opened Faccia Brutto in March 2020 in Brooklyn,” says Patrick Miller, owner and distiller of Faccia Brutto Spirits.

“I am a lifelong line cook and have worked in restaurants in San Francisco, San Sebastián in Spain, and New York. I fell in love with Italian amari after opening Rucola restaurant in downtown Brooklyn in 2011, and pursued a hobby in tinkering with tinctures and bitters starting in 2014. From there I realised that making amaro was what I wanted my next chapter in life to be and moved to make that happen in 2017. We released our Centerbe in 2021 and while it saw initial success, it really took off last year, making almost a third of our revenue.”

Miller continues: “[In 2023] we sold almost 200% more. We noticed the increase immediately after the letter from the monks hit the news and we continue to sell Centerbe every day. Bartenders know that they can rely on our juice when making classic cocktails because the quality is there. The Chartreuse allocation is not likely to change anytime soon and I think it will allow bars, restaurants and consumers to try new things. A rising tide lifts all ships.”

Subbing in

Unsurprisingly it was in bars that Centerbe really took off.

“Faccia Brutto is a local New York distillery that got on everyone’s radar with its Centerbe, a green Chartreuse-adjacent liqueur that can be subbed in quite well in some classics that call for the original,” says Traub.

“Working on a programme as classically rooted as Attaboy, having access to Chartreuse is quite important — we were hesitant to sub in another product for something that these historic cocktails rely on and guests know quite well.”

The Chartreuse shortage isn’t going to end anytime soon. While the Carthusian monks continue to focus on devoting their time to solitude and prayer, the allocations are likely to change.

Now in the UK, a single-bottle purchase limit is the norm, which isn’t particularly practical for a high-volume cocktail bar. What we could be on the verge of is the birth of a global bevy of liqueur brands ready to make up the shortfall.

In the US, the existing brands that already have a similar liqueur on the market will be meeting competition. But another reality could be that bars simply get used to a world with less Chartreuse in it.

“While the supply issue persists and bars continue to deal with varying levels of allocation, it’s been inspiring to see how the bar community has shifted and gotten creative to deal with this new reality,” says Traub. “I’ve no doubt things will level out even if production doesn’t increase and we’ll come out the other side just fine.”

Bars will survive without access to an endless flow of Chartreuse but there’s no world in which the demand for the liqueur will disappear.

Two months after the monks’ letter, Baghera Wines in Switzerland held an auction called The Once Upon A Time… Chartreuse – total sales well exceeded $1.5m and two bottles alone fetched $36,561. There simply isn’t another liqueur that inspires the same level of fervour. The best indication of that isn’t in high-ticket auction lots but that 13 months on and still it’s harder to find than toilet roll in a pandemic.

The original will always be inimitable, it’s why it has inspired more than a century of bartenders, but as new brands continue to enter the market, they will provide those who make drinks with options, and that’s great for creativity.

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