Hunting for the Lost Chartreuse

Makers of one of the world’s most coveted liqueurs released an oddball “orange” bottling in the 1970s. Then it vanished without a trace.

Earlier this summer, a mystery bottle unlike anything I’d ever seen appeared on my Instagram feed. Shared by Hiroyasu Kayama’s influential Tokyo cocktail bar, Ben Fiddich, it glowed a pale, ethereal, milky white, like a water-mixed pastis floating in from outer space. The caption said simply: “New arrival. Chartreuse orange 1970s.”

The label bore little resemblance to the iconic, and famously understated, branding of yellow or green Chartreuse: French Alpine liqueurs beloved by cocktail drinkers and spirit enthusiasts for decades—indeed, centuries. Instead of the liqueur’s classic iconography, evoking mountaintop apothecaries and ancient distilling traditions, this bottle looked decidedly more modern. Beneath the emblematic Chartreuse font, two oranges—one vivisected—sit in a come-hither cluster, crowned by a glowing cursive typeface identifying the flavor. It looks more like a California orange crate, or contemporary American pop art, than a bottle of Chartreuse.

For all the fervor over vintage Chartreuse, amidst the liqueur’s ongoing global revival as a cocktail totem of good taste and craft, Chartreuse Orange sat apart as a rare mystery. What was Chartreuse Orange, anyway? And why had I never heard of it?

The precise makeup of the 130 herbs and adjuncts that flavor each bottle of Chartreuse are intentionally kept secret—part of the brand’s enigmatic allure. According to their official history, in 1605 the Carthusian order of cloistered monks, founded some 500 years before by Saint Bruno, received an ancient manuscript from King Henry IV’s artillery marshal. Titled “The Elixir of Long Life,” the document was eventually sent to the mother house of the Order La Grande Chartreuse, in the mountains near Grenoble, where it was tested, distilled and adapted into the green and yellow Chartreuse bottlings we know today.

In the centuries since, the monks endured great hardship, from landslides to nationalization to world wars and exile, losing and regaining ownership of the Chartreuse trademark across history’s unceasing arc. In 1935, modern production began in Voiron—a town six hours southeast of Paris by car, in the foothills of the Chartreuse Mountains. Today, the Chartreuse-making process is still overseen by two Carthusian monks entrusted with the secret recipe.

It’s a romantic story in which an ancient pursuit—the distilling of the “elixir of life” by Carthusian monks—butts up against external forces beyond the order’s control and persists, largely unchanged. To one such force, however, not even the monks were immune, which is what leads us to Chartreuse Orange.

Orange Chartreuse has passed the threshold from “uncommonly rare” to “apocryphal.”

“The first golden age of Chartreuse was in the late 19th and early 20th centuries,” says Tim Master, the director of specialty spirits at Frederick Wildman and Sons, the exclusive importer of Chartreuse, and an expert in vintage and rare Chartreuse bottlings. “In this era, more travel was taking place, which led to wider distribution of Chartreuse at the same time European vineyards were affected by phylloxera, which hurt wine and Cognac production.” By the time Harry Craddock’s famed Savoy Cocktail Book was published in 1930, Chartreuse was a bartender mainstay, showing up in cocktails like the Alaska, the Albertine, the Bijou, the Champs-Élysées and the Union Jack, to name just a few.

But as the century plodded on, it brought with it generational upheaval in drinking trends. By the 1970s, Chartreuse was on the outs; the monks (or, more likely, their business partners) were at a loss for what to do. “Chartreuse, like many other cocktail ingredients, saw a huge decline in the late 20th century,” says Master. “They tried different marketing schemes . . . one of them was Chartreuse Orange.”

Believing the spirit to be a natural complement to orange juice, the Chartreuse marketing team tried bottling the two together—a pre-mixed alternative to the popular fruit-juice-plus-spirit offerings of the day like the Cape Codder and the Harvey Wallbanger.

“It was not a great success,” recalls Emmanuel Delafon, the president directeur général for the global Chartreuse brand. “We made mistakes in this era, and we have learned from that,” Delafon told me. “The beverage was . . . not sustainable. We have so many other things to say—but not much more on this one.”

I felt a bit like a sports stringer digging for details on an historic payoff loss, or a fashion reporter breathlessly covering a runway stumble, or an automotive journalist interviewing the head of VW Global about the Gremlin. “It was an experiment, and not all experiments are good,” says Master.

And so the secret of Chartreuse Orange isn’t really a secret at all, but rather a marketing stunt, one that the brand acknowledges explicitly as a mistake. Chartreuse Orange wasn’t the only one, either: the brand also bottled limited-edition expressions flavored with anise seed, as well as myrtle, the European blueberry (stylized as “myrtille” on labels). Exact numbers were unavailable, but Delafon and Master estimate production on these bottles was limited, made in the late 1970s and early 1980s—“less than 10 years total,” per Delafon—and produced almost entirely for domestic consumption in France from a base of yellow Chartreuse with added flavor in the form of filtered fruit juice.

It helps to look at Chartreuse Orange as the spirits-world answer to something like New Coke or Crystal Pepsi.

Yet the long durée of history rolls on, and what’s old is new again, and our thirst for all things vintage only grows, from clothes to music to spirits. So goes Chartreuse Orange. At the Aviary in Chicago, Alinea Group beverage director Micah Melton is pouring it for $60 an ounce as part of the bar’s world-renowned vintage and rare spirits collection. “It tastes really delicate, very light in flavor,” says Melton. “We pour it straight—because of the variation of botanicals in Chartreuse from year to year, you get this spice, fennel, curry kind of thing. If you mixed it with anything, it would taste like nothing.” The Aviary also carries the rare myrtle and anise bottlings. “The Myrtille is actually the most flavorful,” says Melton, “and the anisette is like an amaretto version of Chartreuse. I expected it to be gross, but it’s not at all.”

Far more people interviewed for this article, however, had never tried the stuff, including Master, who told me, “I don’t know anyone who has ever tasted it.” Edgar Harden, founder of London’s Old Spirits Company, a vintage spirits retailer, told me that he, too, had never tried Chartreuse Orange, but had acquired and resold two bottles from a private Italian collection in 2016. One of those bottles now lives on the so-called “Captain’s List” of rare spirits at Canon in Seattle, where a one-and-a-half-ounce pour costs a jaw-dropping $195. Paul Einbund of The Morris in San Francisco has the Myrtille expression on his bottle list, but not the Orange. “I’ve had Orange once,” he told me, “but I wouldn’t buy a bottle. It’s pretty awful stuff.”

Orange Chartreuse has passed the threshold from “uncommonly rare” to “apocryphal,” which means interest in the spirit is only going to grow with time, as bottlings become more and more scarce.

Case in point: William Elliott of Brooklyn’s Maison Premiere and Sauvage once went so far as to craft a simulacrum of Chartreuse Orange for an event at Rouge Tomate (“You know the Tropicana commercials where there’s an orange with just a straw sticking out of it? I hollowed out these oranges—I did like 30 of these fuckers—and filled them with an orange and Chartreuse cocktail to imagine what it might have tasted like”), though he’s never tried the real thing.

This is perhaps for the best. “I’ve heard people from the company say, ‘Be careful drinking it,’” says Master. “I’m actually a little afraid of it. It’s orange juice that’s been in a bottle for 40 years. It’s probably, you know, preserved . . . but still.” That sentiment was echoed by Chartreuse’s own Delafon, who told me in no uncertain terms: “Be careful if you do find one.”

I asked Melton about this speculation, and he downplayed the concern. “We keep it in the fridge to help maintain proof, but there’s no pulp. There’s nothing to oxidize and go bad,” he said, adding, “If you asked Dave Wondrich if you should drink a 30-year-old milk punch, he would say yes,” says Melton.

Einbund, for his part, takes a different stance. “Imagine fresh fruit juice mixed with Chartreuse,” he says. “Not bad. Imagine bottling the two together . . . That’s interesting, but not really something I’d get excited about. But now, can you imagine doing this in the 1970s and then drinking it 50 years later? It ain’t fresh anymore,” he says, before admitting, “I can’t throw away anything with the Chartreuse font or logo on it but . . . I would actively dissuade my guests from purchasing the late ’70s fruit Chartreuse bottlings.”

Perhaps the veneer of vintage danger is part of the appeal. Or is it simply its scarcity? The modernist pop art packaging is so unlike any other Chartreuse release. In either case, the idea that Chartreuse—a grand old spirit with a thousand years of human history, maybe more—was no more immune to the whims and fathoms of the 20th century than any other brand, or that it could fuck up, and indeed, be embarrassed about that fuckup, is surprising; it actually makes me like it even more. It further humanizes a process that has been, at its core, an utterly human enterprise from day one, encompassing religion, history, craft and nature in a thousand-year dance that continues today.

It helps to look at Chartreuse Orange as the spirits-world answer to something like New Coke or Crystal Pepsi: widely panned, relegated to the dustbin of time, and yet here we are still talking about it, selling it in the year 2019 for hundreds of dollars on eBay. It’s as though Chartreuse Orange captures the very winding curve of history itself, the missteps, the false starts, the poorly conceived marketing feints, bottled for all eternity and available now by the ounce—for a price, and with a warning from the top down.

Perhaps our obsession with Chartreuse Orange says more about us than it does about Chartreuse. Sometimes nostalgia is gross; that’s when we want it the most.

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Jordan Michelman is a co-founder and editor at Sprudge, the international coffee publication based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared previously in T Magazine, Portland Monthly, Willamette Week, TASTE and Los Angeles Times Food. His debut book, The New Rules of Coffee was released in 2018 with Ten Speed Press.