You might have heard of the Aviation. It’s a classic cocktail that got a lot of attention during the cocktail renaissance, but before then was mostly forgotten. The drink appears in The Savoy Cocktail Book, first published in 1930 and still a favorite among bartenders. There the ingredients were limited to gin, lemon juice, and maraschino liqueur, but as the cocktail regained popularity it was discovered to have an earlier recipe.
Creme de violette, this is the magic ingredient that made The Aviation the darling of mixologists. It’s rare. It’s floral. It’s brightly colored. It was the missing ingredient for the Aviation as it appeared in Recipes for Mixed Drinks, the cocktail guide by Hugo Ensslin published in 1916. Today’s he’s credited with being the creator of the drink. Ensslin was the bartender at the Hotel Wallick, located at 43rd St. and Broadway in New York City. The Hotel has been torn down, but Colombia University has a great picture of it in their digital library.
The ingredients are what make the Aviation special, but they are also what makes it hard to find. You have gin of course, but most people don’t have either maraschino liqueur or creme de violette. I had planned to compare the Savoy and the Ensslin recipes, but after visiting a few places that generally a have good collection of liqueurs, I realized just how hard creme de violette is to find. Doing a little research, I learned that Creme Yvette is sometimes used in its place. I was able to find that so I decided I would write about how to make an Aviation when no creme to violette is to be found.
I made two cocktails. (And then of course I made a few more.) The first was an take on the Savoy recipe. My version: 2 oz. Gin (I used Damnation Alley) and 1 oz each of fresh lemon juice and maraschino liqueur. I shook vigorously in a cocktail shaker loaded with ice and strained into a glass with a cherry. This was delicious. It doesn’t have the floral flavor or the purple color of the original Aviation, but this is a great drink. The second cocktail was the same base but I added a half an ounce of Creme Yvette before shaking. The color was better and the drink had more complexity, but it did not have the powerful floral flavor that creme de violette gives it.
Creme Yvette has violet in it, but there are also berries and honey and vanilla. If what you want is true Aviation experience, this isn’t it. It’s neither the Ensslin nor the Savoy and I don’t recommend it. If you can’t find the creme de violette, omit it. The Savoy recipe is a great gin drink if you want something other than a G&T or a martini. If you want the violet recipe, take the time and find real creme de violette, but I actually like it better without the floral flavor at all.
The original Savoy called for less maraschino liqueur, but at that point the lemon is pretty tart. I like the extra sweetness to balance the lemon. At 2:1:1 my ratio is easy to remember, but play around and adjust to your preferences. The most important thing is to use fresh lemon juice. I made one with fresh lemon juice and one with Whole Foods Organic Lemon Juice. The difference was startling. Fresh lemon juice brings a brightness that really makes this drink amazing. This drink isn’t really worth making if you don’t have fresh lemon juice.
For some cocktails, like a Bee’s Knees I don’t think the gin matters too much. Of course don’t use something awful, but any decent gin will do the trick. Using a top end gin won’t make it better. The Aviation is in the category. There is enough other flavor in they recipe that I would have a hard time picking out the gin (unless it was something like Shortpath Winter.)
I like the Luxardo Maraschino liqueur. Though once hard to find, all of the places I went trying to find the creme de violette had Luxardo. I also picked up a jar of Luxardo cherries for garnish. These are ridiculously expensive, think $15 for a jar of cherries. They are well worth it. All the high end city bars are using these now, and they are so much better than those bright red cherries you ate as a kid. Maraschino liqueur also makes an appearance in the Hemingway Daiquiri, my favorite brunch cocktail. Now you don’t have to feel like you are buying a bottle for a single cocktail.
So let’s sum up. Grab a decent gin and some fresh lemon juice. Add a little maraschino, the good stuff. If you aren’t going to skip the violet, which you probably should, whatever you do, don’t use Creme Yvette. Shake and enjoy! This is an easy but elegant cocktail to add to your repertoire. If you make it, share your recipe with me. If not, give it a try and let me know. Cheers!