Chartreuse: More than a color, more than a liqueur!
I have to get off my own egotistical high horse, or else I will sound like all the other blogs out there; there was a revealing cartoon in the NY Times a week ago yesterday, that is April 1 fittingly, that showed the life cycle of a blog in terms of posting, others hedging, others attacking, blogger attacking back, fights escalating, calls for a truce by others on the sidelines, and a gradual return to the beginning-- like the Wheel of Lady Fortuna that I mentioned last week in that marathon post.
So, not even an Irish connection although I think Browning if not Byron wrote of La Grande Chartreuse, as have I here. (Here follows below a minor and common slip-up for the Time factcheckers. Monks do not take a vow of silence itself. Vows are to poverty, chastity, obedience, and perhaps if you are a Jesuit to papal loyalty or a Benedictine to stability, i.e., promising to stay at that foundation for your vocation. As far as I know, the two stricter monastic orders, Trappists & Carthusians, practice refraining from speech unless absolutely necessary. Pre-Vatican II, the Trappists had evolved over a few centuries a complex sign language; Thomas Merton [along with JRR Tolkien my adolescent hero, go figure; strange kid, huh?] mentions this in his early work, naturally. Since then Trappists lightened up, along with having cornflakes for breakfast and access to t.v. and news accounts once in a while when deemed necessary.
Carthusians of course have neither luxury, and they-- as the film Into Great Silence detailed elsewhere on this blog shows-- stick to it nearly totally. But if they broke silence, unlike some old time Xerox commercial with Brother Dominic, no harm really comes of it. It's more a discipline than some unbreakable promise at the risk of damnation.
Another oversight exists in this Time article. The monks would not have to come to America theoretically to see the film IGS, as it premiered in 2005 in Europe under its German original title Die Grosse Stille! Philip Groening told us that the monks gained special dispensation at LGC so they could be shown the film. This required a shift in their otherwise unalterable schedule that day, as none of their horarium lasts for any one task more than 2 1/2 hours-- a nod by the wise monks to the necessity to vary what we do each day for maximum productivity and mental sanity.]
Still, this article from the pop press gives readers out there yet more of a an intriguing glimpse at one of the corners most remote from our own bustling ennui, into yet another factor of our globally complicated life. Yuppie bartenders at those $200-a-bottle watering holes on the Strip, or off it, Sunset or Vegas, influence as does the brush of the butterfly's wing a faraway French monastery that meets, thanks to hi-tech and that in turn allowing the monks more time for their prayerful vocation, the demand for this marvelously tinctured herbal distillate that one day I want to try. Intriguingly, the Order does not save its profits over from year to year. It meets the expenses, and then gives the rest away to charity, trusting in Providence and the insatiable thirst of trendier, and far better-heeled folks than me. But, hey, I know more Latin than most of those hipsters, unless as two that I know they've matriculated at Harvard...in vinum veritas. And what a great first name for this journalist-- Coeli as in the latinate "heaven."
Time Magazine. Thursday, Mar. 22, 2007
Religious About Marketing
Word of mouth is the ultimate form of marketing. Which could be a little difficult if your most knowledgeable staff members have taken a vow of silence. The owners and producers of Chartreuse--a liqueur made from 130 herbs and plants--are Carthusian monks who live an ascetic life dedicated to prayer and contemplation at a monastery called La Grande Chartreuse, nested in the French Alps in Voiron, near Grenoble. Nevertheless, because the income generated by sales of the Chartreuse liqueur helps support La Grande Chartreuse and the order's other monasteries around the world, the business--privately and solely held by the Carthusians--also dedicates itself to boosting the bottom line.
In the U. S., the popularity of liqueurs has soared, with almost 12 million cases imported in 2006, an increase of 5 million cases since 1995, says Frank Walters, senior vice president of research at M. Shanken Communications, which publishes the authoritative trade magazine Impact. David Henkes, from market-trends company Technomic, says affluent boomers in particular are drawn to "the perceived status symbol of liqueurs and are shifting their spending toward the higher-priced products." But what's really driving the category, says Walters, are younger drinkers. They were first targeted by German producer Jägermeister, whose marketing team hired young women to stage promotional events in bars. In 2006 Jägermeister accounted for about 25% of all liqueurs imported into the U.S., Walters says.
Having women hand out free samples is probably another selling tool unavailable to a religious order, yet total U.S. Chartreuse sales rose 18% last year because the monks got religion when it came to marketing. Green Chartreuse, which was first sold in 1764, retails in the U.S. for $40 to $45 for 750 ml. Jean Marc Roget, president of Chartreuse Diffusion, the brand's marketing arm, says the brand's updated website--"more modern, colorful and informative"--helped bring about worldwide sales of a million bottles of Green, V.E.P. and Yellow, totaling $13 million. "Many professional sommeliers, bartenders and maître d's love to know the history of the liqueur," says Roget.
That history includes the monks' getting tossed out of the country during the French Revolution and the distillery being nationalized in 1903 (it was not returned to the monks until 1930). The website's beverage and cooking recipes have helped introduce the drink to newcomers, including bartenders, "who use the recipes for inspiration." That's particularly vital in the U.S., where mixologists in trendy bars have a huge influence on sales. "People love the complexity it adds to cocktails and mixed drinks," says Audrey Saunders, owner of Pegu Club, in New York City's SoHo district.
Back in the Alps, technology has also become part of the distillation and by extension the contemplation process. La Chartreuse has relied on a sophisticated software program that's updated constantly--"It cost a fortune," says Roget--and helps run production automatically. The monks got hold of the recipe, originally a health potion, in 1605 but it was so complex they didn't master it for another century. The two monks at La Grande Chartreuse who are each privy to part of the liqueur's formula no longer need to spend their days at Voiron distilling the stuff. Instead, the technology allows the pair to oversee the process remotely via television monitors in their cells. The goal, says Roget, is not to boost production but rather to allow the monks more time for spiritual activities. The monks' vocation "is not to make liqueur but to pray," he says.
The monks didn't make it to the U.S. for the opening of a film about them called Into Great Silence. There is no product placement either. The liqueur and its producers--the Chartreuse monks, as they are called in France--are inextricably bound up in a mystery that not even Roget has cracked. "I'm totally in the dark about what I sell," he says. "They are very secretive, these monks."