The Aviation is a classic cocktail created during the first couple of decades of the 20th century. It consists of gin, lemon juice, Maraschino and Crème de Violette. This makes for a delicate, slightly dry yet impressively floral cocktail which is a personal favourite of mine. It unfortunately suffered from some serious neglect and misinterpretation during the middle of the 20th century, but is making an outstanding comeback in the 21st.
The earliest reference to its existence comes from the 1916 cocktail book Recipes for Mixed Drinks by Hugo Ensslin, head bartender of the Hotel Wallick, New York. Thus we assume he was its creator, though this may not be the case. Either way this places its creation bang in the middle of the golden age of aviation.
With air travel so commonplace nowadays we often forget that it was once brand new, novel and exciting. The earliest aviators were arguably some of the first ever international celebrities, as we understand the concept today. Brave to the point of foolhardiness. Eccentric to the point of madness. And widely considered to be sexy as hell. They were the rock stars of the age, and likely had all sorts of things named after them.
With gin being the tipple of choice for most aviators and its sky blue colour, the Aviation seems to have been well named. But over time aviation became mundane and lost its glamour. So the Aviation also fell out of fashion and was made poorly for decades.
A Gin Sour?
For a long time the Aviation was considered to be a variant on a Gin Sour. It replaced the sugar syrup with Maraschino, resulting in a much drier taste experience. And it seems to have omitted both bitters and egg white, making it far closer to a White Lady. This is a nice enough drink and is also a great basis for experimentation. The Lose Your Cherry Sour is based on this concept.
But it’s not an Aviation. For at the heart of a real Aviation is Crème de Violette – a liqueur crafted and flavoured with the violet flower. It is a subtle taste, hard to describe beyond calling it “floral”. But in too great a quantity it becomes as offensive to the senses as an overdone potpourri.
Still, I can understand why this happened.
Firstly, the recipe for the Aviation in Harry Craddock’s hugely influential The Savoy Cocktail Book of 1930 omits Crème de Violette. So you can hardly blame lesser bartenders for following suit.
Secondly, and perhaps the reason for the first, was that until comparatively recently no-one was producing Crème de Violette commercially. In theory you could craft your own, but it simply wasn’t for sale anymore.
This has happened several times through history. The individual product called for by a cocktail recipe is no longer available, so bartenders experiment to attempt to replace it. This occurred with reasonable success in both the Mai Tai and the Vesper Martini. But for the Aviation they just screwed it up. Allow me to explain why…
As I have stated before, every cocktail has its own Essential Nature. This is often best described by my Axes of Taste model. But not always. Sometimes to craft a particular cocktail you instead need to understand its philosophy. This is a necessity for an Aviation. Otherwise you will miss the point and craft a variant of the Gin Sour instead, as was done for many years.
The essence of an Aviation is to take the beautiful floral notes of Crème de Violette and present them to your palate in the optimal manner possible. This is quite tricky to achieve. Flowers may smell nice, but to most of us they don’t taste nice. So the trick is to first acquire a top quality Crème de Violette, one whose taste is subtle and delicate rather than synthetic and sickly. And then to present it in just the right manner that it is neither overwhelmed by other ingredients nor overpowering. That’s quite a tall order.
So I find that it is wise to consider the Aviation in a manner similar to a Dry Martini. Despite the Aviation clearly not fitting into the category of “Martini variants“. For the philosophy behind the Dry Martini is to bring out and present the subtle botanicals of a top quality gin in the best manner possible. You’re trying to do the same for an Aviation, but for floral notes. So you are best off treating it with the same care and attention you would a Dry Martini. For this reason I choose to stir the Aviation, despite the reduction in efficiency this entails.
The trickiness in a Aviation is in acquiring (or crafting) a high quality Crème de Violette. And then selecting an appropriately floral top shelf gin to complement it. By comparison the Maraschino is readily available as is freshly squeezed lemon juice. And the method is really quite simple.
Note that I need to be very careful with the quantity of Crème de Violette I use here. Too little and neither flavour nor colour is strong enough. Too much and it is so overwhelming it destroys the drink. So we must resist the temptation to add more to produce a strikingly purple colour, and be content with the light purple or sky blue effect we get. Somewhere in the range of 5-10ml is typically sufficient.
The Aviation is stirred, so into my mixing glass I pour: one and a half shots of a top shelf, floral gin; the freshly squeezed juice of half a lemon; one quarter of a shot Crème de Violette; and one quarter of a shot Maraschino.
Add ice and stir for up to a minute. Then strain into a martini glass (or equivalent). There is no classic garnish specified, though I often go for a cocktail cherry or a twist of lemon zest for the contrast they provide.