Last week, I suggested that the Carthusian monks didn’t actually have much to do with the making of Chartreuse. This precipitated a courteous note from Tim Master, a spirits industry veteran who manages distribution of the green and yellow liqueurs in the United States. “I’m afraid that some of your facts were incorrect.” Oh, dear. Had I missed the fact that the monks keep a secret distillery where they actually operate the stills and run the bottling line? No, the green liqueur is made by lay employees under the “aegis” of the two senior monks entrusted — between them — with the recipe.
Carthusians practice radical solitude, a discipline facilitated by staying in their cells. “Separation from the world is achieved by the enclosure,” the Carthusians’ website informs us. “We leave the monastery only for the weekly walk.”
One way the monks help keep themselves separate from the outside world: They pray all night. Come the day, the monks do manage to fit in some work between their many offices and snippets of sleep. They may grow flowers or vegetables, according to the order. Or they may choose “bookbinding, woodturning, and other activities,” according to their aptitudes. Chopping wood is a regular pastime (they are up in the Alps, after all, and need to stay warm). Some sew; some do “secretarial work.” For some reason, in all this discussion of the labors of the order, work on Chartreuse liqueur doesn’t warrant mention.
Master wants to make it clear, though, that “the monks are the owners of the brand.” No doubt they are. I’m less convinced that the monks are “in charge of the production.” Two monks are said to stir up some bags of herbs; much later, they taste the liqueur made from those herbs by civilians. Here is where the promoter of the vegetal sip and I disagree: Master maintains that means the monks are manufacturers (try saying that five times, fast). Methinks they are more marques than makers.
Would one have it any other way? Would we take the brothers away from the serious business of keeping vigil for the world through nocturnal liturgy? They have some praying to do.
And then there are the unserious businesses, the ones less concerned with the making and delivering of their products than they are in promoting them. Last year at Christmas, I bought my wife a “Legacybox,” a service that promises to take old family photos, films, slides, and videotapes and digitize them. And so, in the dead of winter, off went the irreplaceable home movies, snapshots, and such. Within a day or two, we received a chipper notice informing us that the materials had arrived and were “in line to be processed.”
Then began the promotional messages: “Celebrate Valentine’s day with up to 60% OFF Legacybox E-Deals.” Then, “Save over 60% on tape-to-digital conversions when you shop $9 Tape Transfer.” But I didn’t mind too much because a week later, I received notice that our order was “progressing.”
More promos followed. One day, we were urged to have photos digitized for 7 cents each. The next, we were pitched “amazing deals” and “exclusive savings.” We were told to declutter by using Legacybox at a special 50% discount. Then we were told to hurry because “50% off Legacybox ends SOON!”
But what of the order we had already paid for? The pictures of ours that they already had in their possession? We didn’t hear nearly as much about those. Instead, there were emails touting “A ridiculously good Legacybox deal!” and “Unbelievable (but true!)” savings on tape transfers.
Hardly a day has gone by that we haven’t been frantically urged to buy, buy, buy. But now that it’s springtime, we received an email of a different sort, a very calm notice: “Just wanted to update you that, due to our current volume, we’re still working on getting your order processed.”
Is it too much to ask that companies put the same — if not more — effort into delivering their goods that they put into selling them? It’s not just the Legacybox folks who think marketing is what their business is all about. But in their case, I’d be excited to get more pictures and fewer pitches.
Eric Felten is the James Beard Award-winning author of How’s Your Drink?