Monks, Government, and Booze
In this time of confusion, the Carthusians turn to contemplation, and we to our cocktails — if the powers that be would cease their compulsive regulating.
In recent months, a panic has gripped the drinks industry. Green Chartreuse, the only liqueur to have a color named after it, is suddenly hard to find. If you head down to the local liquor store and ask for a bottle, you’re likely to be met with a shrug and a monthslong wait list.
Although the scarcity of the legendary herbal spirit is hardly a laughing matter, the reason for the shortage is charmingly quaint in our modern world. Chartreuse is made by the monks of the Order of Carthusians, who have resided in the French Alps for several centuries. The liqueur enjoyed a revival when the craft cocktail boom blew up a few decades ago, and bartenders began unearthing long-forgotten concoctions from bygone eras. Among these was the Last Word, which, alongside lime juice, gin, and maraschino liqueur, calls for a dash of green Chartreuse.
Chartreuse consists of 130 different herbs, and supposedly only two of the monks in the order even know the full recipe. In the face of ever-growing demand, the monks have decided that increasing production could become a distraction to their monastic lifestyle — after all, the order’s motto is: “The cross is steady while the world turns.” While even nonbelievers can respect the monks’ decision, there are far less noble reasons for other cocktail-ingredient shortfalls in America.
Amer Picon — a bittersweet French aperitif with notes of orange zest and quinine — is a key component of several famous cocktails, including the Brooklyn (a pre-Prohibition classic and cousin to the Manhattan) and Picon Punch (invented by Basque immigrants to America around the turn of the 20th century).
Even though Amer Picon is imbibed every afternoon in Parisian cafes, it is nonexistent in the United States. This is because it contains calamus root, which is banned by an obscure Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulation from the 1960s. The scientific evidence behind the ban remains disputed. Calamus contains beta-asarone, which is deemed carcinogenic based on decades-old studies that involved injecting rats directly with massive amounts of the substance over extended periods of time.
Never mind that calamus root has been used as a medicinal herb in Chinese and Indian cultures for centuries, or that small amounts of it have been consumed by Amer Picon–sipping Europeans for generations with zero reported health effects. Some have even suggested it was one of the ingredients composing the holy oil that God instructed Moses to make in Exodus — not that the FDA cares.
The entire episode is reminiscent of perhaps the most famous American spirit ban, that of absinthe — known as “the Green Fairy” — from 1912 to 2007. The ban was based on research by a man named Valentin Magnan in the 1870s, whose findings purported to show hallucinogenic and epileptic properties in absinthe. Magnan’s research consisted of administering wormwood — which is found in absinthe and contains a chemical compound called “thujone” — to various animals, who subsequently had seizures. He then observed 250 alcoholics, claiming that those who drank absinthe likewise had hallucinations and seizures.
Few at the time realized that absinthe contains such trace amounts of thujone that Magnan’s research was essentially irrelevant. Naturally, it took the US government almost one hundred years to admit its mistake and greenlight the Green Fairy.
The federal government is far from the only offender when it comes to scientifically dubious bans of canonical drinks. While the ingredients for most cocktails are found solely within the libation itself, few would dispute that the sine qua non of the ubiquitous Moscow Mule is a handsome copper mug.
Right on cue, in 2017 the Iowa Alcoholic Beverages Division banned the use of pure copper mugs in serving Moscow Mules, citing concerns about copper “leaching” into the drink and becoming “toxic.” Once again, the boring details confirm that, in reality, it would be nearly impossible to hurt oneself with a copper drinking vessel — unless you’re the type that likes to nurse your drink for hours on end.
It takes close to half an hour of sitting in one of those mugs for a drink’s copper level to rise above that which the Environmental Protection Agency has set as the safety standard for drinking water. Even if you’re a slow drinker, the risks are minimal. As one researcher understatedly noted: “Acute copper toxicity is very unlikely. For that, you would need to drink 30 Moscow mules in a 24-hour period.”
There are many rational responses one could have to today’s maddeningly complex way of life. For the monks in charge of Chartreuse, the best tonic is a return to essential truths and a pivot away from the profit-at-all-costs mentality. For others, it may be drinking a stiff Brooklyn cocktail or an easy-drinking Moscow Mule while watching the world pass by. But for the government, the only ingredient that matters is more government.
The Brooklyn: A Cocktail
- 2 oz. rye whiskey
- ¾ oz. Dolin Blanc vermouth
- ¼ oz. Luxardo maraschino liqueur
- ¼ oz. Amer Picon (substitute Bigallet China-China Amer if you live in America)
- 1 orange peel (for garnish)
Stir ingredients in a mixing glass filled with ice. Strain into a chilled coupe glass. Garnish with orange peel.