Quick! What color is the Blue Moon Cocktail?

It’s blue, right? It’s called the Blue Moon.

Yes and no. As it turns out, the original Blue Moon was… red. As first published in Hugo Ensslin’s 1916 Recipes for Mixed Drinks, it was essentially, and gorgeously, a Martini topped with Bordeaux wine. It is a flavor combination that works surprisingly well.

Alas! that this delightful ruby drink became a victim of blue-nosed politics and the evolution of the marketplace. By the time Prohibition ended, the Blue Moon had turned into a blue gin sour. Its appearance and recipe looked more like the Aviation than the Martini. The blue gin sour has been the standard model ever since.

Starting in the 1890s, the blue ingredient of choice was Crème Yvette violet liqueur. In addition to providing the “Blue” of that post-Prohibition Blue Moon, it provided the sky hue for the Aviation, and the blue notes for the Blue Train, the Pousse Cafe, and the Stork Club’s Stratosphere. There was even a dash in Ensslin’s original version of the Blue Moon, though not enough to color the drink—it was there to pull the flavors together.

Crème Yvette ceased production in 1969, and Crème de Violette took its place in cocktail recipes. Blue tinged and floral, it at least provided some of the same flavor notes as the original ingredient.

Then Crème de Violette itself became rare, and finally non-existent, in the U.S. market. There was no proper substitute. Blue Moon recipes appeared with ingredients like blue curaçao. The Blue Moon, in its sour incarnation, was moribund.

Finally, of course, the good news, as the rising interest in classic cocktails and ingredients has made all the difference in the past ten years or so. The first step was the renewed import of Crème de Violette; once again we could make Blue Moons and Aviations that avoided the neon blue curaçao color and returned the violet notes to the palate.

Then, in 2009, the U.S.A. saw the return of the original Creme Yvette, and we were back almost where we started… sort of. Inexplicably, the makers of Crème Yvette decided to abandon the color that made Yvette the de rigeur centerpiece of so many classic azur cocktails. You can have original flavor, but there is no way you can make visual sense of a blue-themed cocktail mixed with Crème Yvette. Pre- or post-Prohibition, your Blue Moon will be red.

The Blue Moon Cocktail, two ways; photo © 2011 Douglas M. Ford. All rights reserved.
The Blue Moon Cocktail, two ways

And so we come full circle to a reconsideration of my favorite recipe of the lot, Ensslin’s luscious, original ruby Blue Moon Cocktail:

The Blue Moon Cocktail
Hugo Ensslin, 1916

  • 2 oz gin (Bombay Dry)
  • 1 oz dry vermouth (Noilly Prat Dry)
  • 1 dash orange bitters (Fee Bros. Orange Bitters)
  • 1 dash (⅛ tsp) Crème Yvette
  • Claret / Bordeaux wine to top

Stir gin, vermouth, bitters, and liqueur until well chilled. Strain into chilled cocktail glass. Top off with Claret.

That one dash of Crème Yvette is pretty subtle, but it is a brilliant addition. I tried this drink without it, and it’s good, but just doesn’t have the same tight blending of the gin and wine flavors. I also tried substituting Crème de Violette; it didn’t seem to make much difference, which indicates that it’s either the added sweetness or the berry fruit overtones in the Crème Yvette that raise the drink from interesting to special.

I used wines that were destined for the evening table, and this drink made a marvelous taste segue between cocktails and dinner. This version of Blue Moon works marvelously well as an aperitif.

(I’m in Minneapolis, which has never seen the first introduction of any new product, so I’m well aware that Crème Yvette is not available everywhere. Even if you live in an Yvette-free zone, I still recommend that you give this Martini-esque version a try—the introduction of cabernet into a Martini was a happy new flavor experience for me, quite a revelation.)

Here’s the more commonly encountered sour version:

The Blue Moon Cocktail (sour)

  • 2 oz gin (Bombay Dry)
  • ½ oz lemon juice
  • ¼–½ oz Crème Yvette or Crème de Violette

Shake (stir if using Violette) until well chilled; double strain into cold cocktail glass. Express and garnish with lemon.

This version is a simplified Aviation Cocktail, lacking only the Maraschino.

As noted previously, modern Crème Yvette will make this drink not just red, but more berry-fruity. (In addition to the violets, Yvette infuses blackberry, raspberry, cassis, strawberry, and vanilla.) It is also quite sweet; you may want to cut back here, depending on the sourness of your lemons.

If you go for the blue styling with Crème de Violette, I recommend that you stir and double strain instead of shaking. The bubbles introduced by shaking can cloud the blue color, turning the drink an murky aluminum gray.

Garnish: Chuck Taggart at Gumbo Pages has a great idea for a seasonal garnish—fresh blueberries. I can’t wait for blueberry season, that would add a delightful, summery touch to either the red or the blue presentation.

So: Martini style, or sour? Red or blue? I’m interested to know if I’m the only one who thinks the Ensslin version is actually the superior cocktail. And why did he name a red drink the “Blue Moon”?