With bar programs becoming more and more specialized, the past month’s flurry of openings have brought two restaurant bars with a very rare, unusual offering: vintage Chartreuse.
Coincidentally, The Saratoga and The Morris have both opened their restaurants this month with vintage Chartreuse programs that allow guests to taste Chartreuse from various decades across the past 100 years, dating as early as the 1920s (including some sold for $440 a pour at The Saratoga). The French herbal liqueur, distilled by monks through a secret process known only to them, is said to be the only spirit that continues to age within the bottle. The distinct green and yellow color, botanicals, and sweetness can develop over years, even decades.
Saratoga bar director Brandon Clements has been accumulating these bottles from specialized traders for almost two years, while Morris owner Paul Einbund creates his program from a personal collection he’s curated for the past two decades, hand carrying bottles from trips to Europe and small shops in random U.S. cities.
“There’s kind of an arms race right now,” says Clements, jokingly. That’s because finding such an offering is extremely rare, as bottles are both difficult and time consuming to procure. Finding two Chartreuse collections within one city is even rarer — within the enthusiast community, people whisper about the chance to taste old Chartreuse at Pouring Ribbons in New York, at a small restaurant bar called the Canon in Seattle, and select places in Europe.
Here in San Francisco, though, it’s never been easier to drink the green stuff. Over at The Saratoga, there is a dazzling selection of 19 different Chartreuses with at least one bottle from each of the last few decades to the 1920s, ranging from $11 to $440 a pour. In addition, they showcase green Chartreuse as a cocktail component in the stirred Bijou cocktail — a twist from the 1880s on the classic Martini — and also in the Green Goblin — a shaken drink of vodka, green chartreuse, Maurin Quina, lime, and basil.
Similarly, at The Morris, Einbund exhibits his personal collection of 18 Chartreuse bottles, reaching back to 1940, each procured from his personal travels. He also features the liqueur in a playful chartreuse slushie, along with two cocktails on his menu: the Improved Whisky Cocktail — a classic twist on the Old Fashioned from Jerry Thomas in 1876 — and the Eclipse, a mix of white rum, green chartreuse, and lemon.
Such specific spirit programs represent a bigger push for restaurant bars to distinguish themselves. In a city like San Francisco, bars and restaurants feel the pressure from guests who increasingly expect great cocktails and a robust wine list as simply table stakes. As bar flies have become thirsty for novel spirits and new cocktails, it’s opened the door to put the obscure into the spotlight and draw mainstream interest in even narrow passions.
“I think that these Chartreuse or Genepi (another herbal liqueur) programs pop up every so often because it's a great way to express a program's point of view,” explains Claire Sprouse, a national bar consultant at Tin Roof Drink Community. “If I look on the backbar and see a bunch of vintage bottles, that usually means, A, this bar is into unique spirits; B, things could get weird — fun weird; or C, someone here is probably well-traveled and has a great story to tell that's associated with each of those bottles.”
Chartreuse has been a long-time favorite of the bar industry, known for its high-proof, nuanced herbaceousness, and sweet botanicals borne from a 250-year-old secret recipe guarded by French monk producers presently outside of Grenoble, France. Four types of the liqueur are distributed on the market — green, yellow, and an extra barrel-aged “VEP” version for each. What has drawn a niche, but devoted, following is the vintage bottles, which are unofficially traded online and hunted in dusty, forgotten liquor stores off the beaten path. The art of the trade is weeding out the frequent counterfeits, finding shops with unknowingly old bottles, and identifying the age of the bottle through the label.
“It’s really fun to share the bottles,” says Einbund. “It’s also sad to watch them disappear. But I’ve been a sommelier for 18 years, and I’ve learned that bottles come and go. And if you don’t cling, there will be something else rad.”
Edited by Stefanie Tuder