Some modern cocktails jump to classic-cocktail status right out of the gate. Phil Ward’s Oaxaca Old-Fashioned and Don Lee’s Benton’s Old-Fashioned are among those drinks that captivated the drinking public almost immediately after their debut in 2007. Other cocktails take their time achieving that status, yet end up in the same rarified territory.
The Piña Verde, a boozy, herbal twist on the Piña Colada, is one such slow burner. San Diego bartender Erick Castro admits it took years for the simple, four-ingredient drink—green Chartreuse, pineapple juice, lime juice and coconut cream—to come together. And then it took a few additional years to catch on. All told, the drink’s climb to popularity lasted nearly a decade.
It all began with a little bartender trick, designed to make a good drink better—or, at least, stronger.
“I first started with the move of floating green Chartreuse over Piña Coladas,” recalls Castro, of a technique he employed in the late aughts. When he became a brand ambassador for Beefeater Gin in 2010, Castro experimented with switching out the traditional rum in the drink for gin. “I just loved the way that the botanicals and herbs played with the creaminess of the coconut and brightness of the pineapple,” he said.
In time, Castro came to realize that what he liked most about the cocktail was the interplay between the Chartreuse and coconut. So he ditched the gin altogether and allowed the overproof French herbal liqueur—one and a half ounces of it—to step into the starring role.
Castro put the drink on the menu at Polite Provisions, the cocktail bar he co-founded in San Diego in 2012, sometime during the bar’s first year of operation. It was then that the drink finally got a proper name. “One of our bartenders at the time suggested calling it the Greenya Colada, but we knew that was just a little on the nose,” he explained. “Plus, we just knew that in a loud bar too many would get made by accident as it sounds too similar to the original cocktail.” Eventually, he settled on the simpler Piña Verde.
Still, the drink didn’t really take off until it made its debut on the opposite coast, when it landed on the opening menu at New York’s Boilermaker, a popular East Village bar Castro opened with entrepreneur Greg Boehm in 2014. The drink first gained traction with industry types, to whom certain esoteric and challenging heritage products—such as Fernet Branca and Chartreuse—amounted to culinary catnip, and all but guaranteed an order. Local bartenders, including John Deragon and Naren Young, would sidle up to the bar and ask for that “Green Chartreuse drink” that they had heard tell about from this or that colleague. Once guests found out what all the bartenders were ordering, they wanted that, too.
James Tune, a co-owner at Boilermaker, didn’t have high hopes for the drink at first. “I thought that I wouldn’t like it because I was not a huge fan of Chartreuse,” he recalls. “Seeing the specs on paper, I wasn’t sure how it was going to work. I was pleasantly surprised and ended up loving it.” By the bar’s second year, the Piña Verde—jumping from industry secret to public favorite—was a top seller at Boilermaker.
Eventually, the cocktail found a worthy advocate in Sam Ross, co-owner of the legendary Lower East Side speakeasy bar Attaboy (formerly Milk & Honey) and an influential figure in the cocktail world. However, Ross didn’t discover it at either Polite Provisions or Boilermaker, but on the Internet. Intrigued, he whipped up one for himself at Attaboy.
“Looking past your standard base spirits as the major component to a cocktail has always been very appealing to me,” Ross explained. “I’m mired in the classics and love to see bartenders using these platforms but then getting inventive with amaros, herbal liqueurs and fortified wines in the place of the common spirits.”
Ross began turning out the Piña Verde as a “bartender’s choice” at Attaboy in 2016. He also asked Castro if he could put the drink on the cocktail list at Palazzo, a new Las Vegas mezcal- and rum-focused bar he was consulting on in 2018. “Sammy has put the drink on several menus that he has done,” said Castro. (To date, Ross still has not had a Piña Verde personally made by Castro.)
The profile of the drink received an additional boost from the tiki revival, which was in full flower by 2015 and 2016.
“I don’t think that it is a coincidence that it first started getting attention at the same time that the tiki cocktail revival was happening worldwide,” says Castro. “Although the drink is not overtly tiki, its tropical roots are quite evident, so it becomes an easy sell to tiki cocktail lovers that are looking for something different. It is one of those recipes that can bridge the divide between speakeasy and tiki bar.”
Because of its base spirit, Castro has been surprised by the drink’s widespread success. Chartreuse is not cheap, after all, making the cocktail expensive to make. (It was, in fact, eventually dropped from the Boilermaker menu for that reason. “The drink was not that cost-effective,” said Tune. “It stayed on as long as it did because it became a crowd favorite.”)
In Ross’ view, however, it’s the challenging green liqueur and its surprisingly copacetic relationship with a traditionally easygoing drink that makes the Piña Verde the conceptual success that it is, regardless of cost.
“Green Chartreuse is so polarizing,” says Ross. “It’s a flavor bomb and it’s super high in alcohol. When you mix that dangerousness into the safe confines of a Piña Colada, you’ve found a way to harness the devil.”