In the San Francisco bar world of the early aughts, Fernet and Chartreuse loomed large. These intensely herbal, palate-challenging European liqueurs were the two prevailing “bartender’s handshakes,” shared over countless bar tops as a sign of connoisseurship.
“I was always squarely in the Fernet camp,” recalls Jon Santer, a veteran San Francisco bartender, “but Chartreuse had a fanatical following. I remember there was even a guy who hung out in North Beach and Russian Hill who had his car painted Green Chartreuse.”
Fellow bartender Marcovaldo Dionysos was one of those Chartreuse fanatics. So much so, that starting in 1999, he entered the San Francisco cocktail competition sponsored by the French herbal liqueur every year for five years running. For the first four contests, he landed on the podium, including one first-place finish. Having achieved this respectable measure of success as a Chartreuse master, Dionysos was prepared to sit out the fifth competition in 2003.
“I didn’t have any great ideas,” he remembers. But the organizer of the event reached out and asked him to reconsider. “I decided to make something fun and went in a tropical direction,” he recalls.
His entry was the Chartreuse Swizzle, an improbable drink that dragged the centuries-old European liqueur into the realm of tiki. He paired it with pineapple juice, lime juice, mint, a load of crushed ice and one final ingredient that all but stole the show from the bright green elixir: Velvet Falernum.
“I remember reading about Velvet Falernum and being intrigued,” says Dionysos, referring to the spiced syrup from the Caribbean that was once a popular cocktail ingredient, but had nearly faded from memory by the 21st century.
Between the falernum and the drink’s exotic form (swizzles, icy concoctions typically made with rum, were not well known in the States at the time), Dionysos caught the judges’ attention. He took home the top prize—a Fuji mountain bike.
From there, the Chartreuse Swizzle began its arduous, decadelong climb to worldwide recognition. As any cocktail-world observer can tell you, winning a competition is no guarantee that a drink will catch on. Judges don’t make cocktails famous; bartenders and the public do.
The Swizzle made its first menu appearance in 2003 at Harry Denton’s Starlight Room, a swanky cocktail destination where Dionysos was working. Denton, a renowned lover of Chartreuse, was a receptive audience. The cocktail sold decently, but hardly set the room on fire.
It was at Clock Bar, opened by celebrity chef Michael Mina in 2008, that the cocktail—which appeared on the debut menu—first took off. Paul Clarke, the editor of Imbibe magazine and a prominent cocktail blogger at the time, recalls having the drink there, as does Camper English, a San Francisco–based drinks writer. “Marco’s cocktail seemed to pop up on the most random cocktail menus in town,” recalls English.
Beginning around 2010, the drink grew international legs. Among the hundreds of bars that have featured the Swizzle over the years (Dionysos keeps detailed notes on its appearances) are such far-flung saloons as Galatoire’s in New Orleans, The Rathskeller in Duluth, Minnesota, Candelaria in Paris, Hefner Bar in Berlin, Vesper Bar in Bangkok, Vintaged Bar + Grill in Brisbane and Concierge in Tel Aviv. When Dionysos started working at the popular San Francisco tiki bar Smuggler’s Cove in 2010, the Chartreuse Swizzle was put on the menu for a time and became popular all over again.
Naturally, this all pleased Dionysos. But perhaps not as much as it pleased Chartreuse itself. Sales of the liqueur had dipped in the 1980s and ’90s. But, thanks to the Chartreuse Swizzle, in the aughts, the line on the graph began to climb again.
“We saw a resurgence in the early 2000s,” says Tim Master, who has represented the brand since 2011, “Partially thanks to Murray Stenson, who started making The Last Word popular again. But Marco’s Chartreuse Swizzle wasn’t too far behind.”
In turn, Dionysos credits the complex base spirit for the cocktail’s enduring popularity. “Chartreuse is magical stuff,” he says. “I think this drink tastes enough of Chartreuse to satisfy die-hard fans of the spirit, but softens it enough to attract newbies.”
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the drink’s sustained visibility is that it achieved prominence in spite of its defining ingredient, which—demanding flavor profile notwithstanding—happens to be one of the pricier bottles on the shelf. As English put it, “For a cocktail with crazy expensive and specific ingredients, it sure gets around.”