Chartreuse, the iconic herbal liqueur produced by Carthusian monks in the French Alps, has almost exclusively been advertised as a spirit born of noble European lineage—a product of medieval monasticism shrouded in secrecy. But, like any product that boasts centuries of history, there are bound to be some unexpected detours along the way. In the late 1970s and early ’80s, that detour came in the form of a tipsy alligator who, along with his signature drink, the Swampwater, became the face of Chartreuse in the United States.
The Swampwater—a simple mixture of green Chartreuse, lime and pineapple juice served over ice in a branded Mason jar—was developed by Chartreuse’s U.S. marketing team as a ploy to revive the liqueur after stateside sales had taken a serious dip. According to Tim Master, senior director of spirits for Chartreuse importer Frederick Wildman, the campaign, while focused on the southern U.S., was part of a larger push to increase sales on both sides of the Atlantic. Master says these “polyester suit marketers” were trying to sell college kids on batching up gallons of Swampwater. “The true ethos of our marketing is that we do not dictate how to use [Chartreuse],” he says. “What I love about this is that it’s the complete opposite of today’s philosophy.”
In addition to its alligator mascot, Chartreuse’s Swampwater ad campaign hawked a party kit (“Throw a Swampwater party at your house with the Swampwater party kit!”), which could be purchased for $4.95. The kit included a set of 12 branded jars, branded paper napkins and postcard invitations to send out to guests. The order form also offered a floor-sized party game (“to play as you slurp”), complete with foam die and six mini-alligators. The rules of the game have regretfully been lost to history but, from what we can tell, players navigated their alligator game pieces through a cartoon swamp scene full of lush vegetation, hippos, snakes and, of course, more alligators. There was a certain sense of daring woven into the Swampwater ads; one example bore the word “SUPERCHARGED,” but assured potential drinkers with an implied wink that, despite Chartreuse’s 110-proof status, it was “legal in all 50 states.”
“'More bang than a Wallbanger' was one of the campaign’s central taglines.”
“I know that in that period they leaned into the proof,” says Master. “You know, it gets you drunk.” The ads also asserted the Swampwater as a superior alternative to other popular drinks of the day, like the Tequila Sunrise and, most notably, the Harvey Wallbanger, a cocktail similarly associated with a distinctive imported liqueur—in its case, Galliano. “More bang than a Wallbanger” was one of the Swampwater campaign’s central taglines.
There’s a another throughline in the campaign: a very ’70s expression of heterosexuality that was the product of the sexual revolution and the advancement of contraception. (One ad featured a male alligator and his date slurping a Swampwater.) Whether it was at a homegrown Swampwater party or out at a bar, the cocktail promised to have singles mingling.
New Orleans bar legend Chris Hannah associates the drink with T.G.I. Friday’s and, by extension, the fern bars of the period. “Chartreuse came up with [the Swampwater] because their liqueur wasn’t being pushed as much as the Curaçaos [and other liqueurs] used in other island drinks,” which were typical offerings at such establishments. He cites the Goombay Smash, Rum Runner, Bushwacker and Bahama Mama as analogues. Though it’s hard to tell if the Swampwater made it into bar settings in the way the others did, the ads provided instructions for how to order one from a bartender: “If he asks you what the &%$# it is, tell him,” followed by the recipe.
For as incongruous as the campaign and its language might seem against Chartreuse’s modern image, the Swampwater is a surprisingly balanced drink, and when you consider Chartreuse’s modern popularity with bartenders, along with the tropical strain running through many contemporary bar programs, the Swampwater could almost pass as a modern cocktail. In essence, it’s a pineapple-heavy Chartreuse Swizzle, sans falernum. “Chartreuse is special in [the Swampwater] because it’s the base spirit, rather than the typical modifying use Chartreuse is normally used for,” says Hannah.
At Manolito, Hannah and partner Konrad Kantor saw an opportunity to elevate the Swampwater and bring it into the modern era. “Obviously bars [back then] were using bad lime and canned pineapple, so we knew we could do better and have fun with it,” he says. The pair have adapted the Swampwater to their bar’s Cuban-inspired program, turning the formula into a blended drink that features basil, which Hannah says complements the herbal quality of green Chartreuse. The bar’s recipe also increases the Chartreuse portion and seriously cuts back on the pineapple. But, just like the original, Manolito’s version showcases the liqueur’s unique ability to act as base spirit, sweetener and flavor driver all at once. And with a base of two and a half ounces of 110-proof Chartreuse, Manolito’s Swampwater lives up to the original’s reputation as a bona-fide party starter.
"Do you dare ask a date to your Swampwater Party? By all means,” reads one of the drink’s original ads. “Many a match has been made while nipping our naughty nectar."