The High-Flying History of the Aviation Cocktail

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Classic cocktails are typically as straightforward as they are sippable. Mix gin with a dollop of vermouth and you have a Martini. Muddle some sugar and bitters into your rye and you’ve got an Old Fashioned. The Aviation is slightly more vexing than the rest. It’s not that it’s preparation is incredibly complex. The recipe never calls for more than four ingredients. It’s just that bartenders—and history—can’t seem to agree on how it should look. And they remain bitterly divided on how it tastes: some say subtle and sour; others decry hand soap. Both matters boil down to the presence (or absence) of one key component.

The Aviation was introduced to 20th century tipplers in Hugo Ensslin’s self-published 1916 book, Recipes for Mixed Drinks. Noted for his artistic flair, the author and proto-mixologist enlisted crème de violette to imbue the assembly of gin, lemon juice and Maraschino cherry liqueur with floral notes and a distinctive purple flourish. Shaken and strained, it certainly sat pretty in a coup. But save for Parisian bon vivants, few folks had steady access to a French liqueur flavored with violet petals. The obscure additive along with the imminent arrival of American Prohibition conspired to render the drink a distant memory by the early 1930s.

Courtesy Aviation Gin

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“It [only] made it into the modern age because Harry Craddock put it, along with a great many of Ensslin's other drinks, into The Savoy Cocktail Book,” explains cocktail historian Dave Wondrich, author of Imbibe! “I don't think the Aviation would have been revived if Craddock had not either accidentally or deliberately dropped the creme de violette. Back in the 1990s, when the drink started coming back, you could still get Maraschino, particularly if you worked in a restaurant (the pastry chef used it), but creme de violette was non-existent.”

By the turn of the 21st Century, the Aviation was already something of a barroom staple—though its complexion was associated more with pale yellow than purple. The craft cocktail renaissance would soon challenge this identity. Bartenders began digging deep into the recesses of hooch history to uncover Ensslin’s original recipe. 

“The first version I learned was from The Savoy Cocktail Book, but without the crème de violette, it was a bit lacking and uninspiring,” contends Allen Lancaster, Master Mixologist at The Spectator Hotel in Charleston, South Carolina. “Somewhere in the early 2000s, I started seeing the Aviation pop up on menus with the missing ingredient and it was a game changer.

Suddenly a market for creme de violette was emerging, and importers lined up to satisfy the niche. Rothman & Winter was among the first examples to arrive on the American scene, flavored with alpine violets from Austria. A handful of pretty purple bottles followed it onto the backbar of dimly lit lounges from coast to coast.

Armed with a delicate new tool, bartenders now had to resist an urge to get heavy-handed with its application. “You have to be very precise with the Creme de Violette,” warns Benjamin Rouse, head bartender at the Henley in Nashville. “The slightest dash too many and the cocktail turns into a soapy tasting mess.”

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Despite its challenges—and neigh-sayers, the Aviation had soon cemented its status as a modern gin standard. By the mid-2000s it was inspiring everyone from booze-makers to big name celebrities—sometimes in the very same sip. “Aviation Gin was literally created and named for the Aviation cocktail,” recalls actor Ryan Reynolds, who acquired a stake in the brand in 2018. The Deadpool star says the botanicals in his liquor perfectly complement the ingredients in the cocktail. “I first found Aviation Gin in a Negroni but the Aviation cocktail will always have a special place in my heart. And face.”

Of course, you don’t need to own your own gin label to recognize the lasting legacy of the Aviation. In fact, you don’t even have to especially like gin. Mixologists often offer the drink as compelling testimony for those who stubbornly resist the category. And while there’s no denying that the reintroduction of creme de violette has played an outsized role in its ‘wow power’—particularly in the age of Instagram—it ultimately endures because of how it tastes. Lancaster remains quite convinced. “The great balance between floral, tart, and sweet makes the Aviation a cocktail that will be on classic drink lists for years to come,” he says. There’s no other way to color it.