The history of the Aviation Cocktail is a tale of neglect and abuse, rehabilitation and redemption, and even controversy. Sort of like Cinderella with politics. I love these cocktails with stories.

The Aviation has been around at least since 1911, according to David Wondrich’s Imbibe! It has been flying well under the radar ever since. Or at least ever since there was radar.

Its obscurity seems a combination of bad luck and an uncommon-ingredients recipe. Hugo Ensslin first published the formula for the Aviation in his 1916 Recipes for Mixed Drinks, combining two parts gin, one part lemon juice, and two dashes each of maraschino and crème de violette liqueurs. I haven’t been able to determine if both liqueurs would have been commonly stocked in bars, either pre- or post-Prohibition;  it seems unlikely they would be in the average home bartender’s standard inventory, since there are relatively few applications for them. As wildly popular as aviation, the sport, seems to have been, there is no indication that Aviation, the cocktail, was the fashionable drink of its day.

The bad luck part came along in 1930, when the widely referenced Savoy Cocktail Book dropped the crème de violette from the drink’s recipe. The Aviation Cocktail was transformed in that typo-driven instant into a strongly sour drink, with an aggressive dollop of lemon juice and the assertive maraschino liqueur. The charming blue hue that suggested its name was gone. A very tough sell, it was doomed to languish, as bar books ever since have provided iterations of the violette-free Aviation, each one struggling with the sweet-sour balance and the robust nature of maraschino. Crème de violette, its use increasingly arcane, finally disappeared from the United States in the 1960s.

Aviation Cocktail, photo copyright © 2011 Douglas M. Ford. All Rights Reserved.
The Aviation Cocktail

The poor, benighted Aviation was released from cocktail trivia prison in 2007 when the very floral Rothman and Winter crème de violette reappeared in the US market, and the renewed possibility of making the Aviation along the lines of the original Ensslin recipe caught the fancy of the growing body of history-minded cocktailians. In short order, the blogosphere elevated the Aviation to fashionable prominence.

And controversy. There is a school of thought that says that if crème de violette is available, the drink certainly should be made with crème de violette. There is another faction that declares the currently available crème de V “not good enough,” and they’ll stick with the well-published, long standard violette-free version, thank you very much.

Thus, the arrival of crème de violette has made the Aviation the centerpiece of a robust, larger conversation about whether cocktail recipes, especially the first publication recipes, should be considered law, or merely guidelines; and to what extent it’s reasonable to change proportions, to add, subtract, or substitute ingredients, or even change the size of the pour, before the drink takes on such a different character that it becomes a different product altogether. Can a cocktail properly evolve beyond its original definition? Or, as it loses its fidelity to the “original,” must it be considered an entirely different cocktail, signified at the very least by a different name?

I’m not ready to support either side in this controversy. As for how much you can change a cocktail before it loses its identity, I’m afraid I’m in the same position where Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously found himself when considering a completely different topic—I can’t describe when it’s gone too far, but I know it when I see it.

Aviation Cocktail, Creme de Violette (detail), photo copyright © 2012 Douglas M. Ford. All rights reserved.So I’ll stick to the very narrow position that there seems little point in making an Aviation without crème de violette. Without it, the drink is (a) not charmingly blue; and (b) not deliciously, memorably tasty.

The violette adds to the nose, and brings additional sweetness and a depth of flavor to the drink. I do believe that a healthy proportion of lemon helps the drink, and experimentation has brought me around to the idea that it should be small, very cold, and emphatically sour. Not 2:1 sour, but noticably and bracingly sour. So here is the Cold Glass Aviation:

The Aviation Cocktail

  • 2 oz London Dry gin (Plymouth or Bombay Dry)
  • ½–¾ oz fresh lemon juice
  • ¼ oz maraschino liqueur (Luxardo)
  • ¼ oz crème de violette (Rothman & Winter)

Shake with ice, strain into a well-chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with brandied cherry.

The ¾-ounce portion of lemon juice is the “hot days” version, a bit more sour and brightly refreshing on sticky summer evenings. Lemons are highly variable, so as you experiment with the proportions, you may want to work in a little simple syrup to balance the flavors without overloading the liqueurs; maraschino and violette can be overbearing, and I’ve found that these relatively small amounts—less than you’d find in many published versions of the drink—work well for both flavor and color. (I haven’t found a drink yet that is improved by adding more than ¼ ounce of Luxardo, it’s fairly strong.)

Some of the citrusy gins make a fun variant in this cocktail, especially if you want to try upping the lemon nose and flavor without pushing up the sourness. I’ve used New Amsterdam and Bombay Sapphire with good results, but there are many to play with.

Failed Substitutions Department: I tried making Aviations with cheap maraschino liqueur. They were very, very bad; don’t go there. Luxardo is pretty much a quality standard, available everywhere, and the extra cost represents the difference between cocktails and dreck.

Even Bigger Failed Substitutions Department: A bartender with no crème de violette served me an Aviation that substituted blue curaçao. It was strikingly, garishly blue. It did not taste good. I won’t be doing that again.