When Memory Fails: The Aviation

Some cocktails are just unforgettable. They stand out like planets against the starry night sky, luminous, non-flickering orbs. You remember that mind-blowing first sip as the new flavors sparked against your tired taste buds, and you looked down into the glass in awe thinking, What have I been doing all of these years? The Aviation should be one of these cocktails. For so many, it has provided that first glimpse of what a truly balanced classic cocktail should taste like, regardless of whether the creme de violette is included and regardless of whether the imbiber has any knowledge of its history. It stands on its own without being anchored to a specific time or context.

The Aviation was once regarded as the cocktail enthusiasts' handshake, though I am unsure if it still retains that title. And though it is one of my favorite cocktails, I can't for the life of me remember where or when I first had one. I can't even conjure up a context, much less any initial taste revelations. Other important cocktail memories do not so easily recede. The first Brooklyn I ever tasted was at the Zig Zag Cafe--I was seated at the bar in the first days of Spring about three years ago. That first unique sip of rye and dry vermouth stood out then, and the Brooklyn is still my favorite cocktail. I also drank my first Pink Lady at the Zig Zag. Murray asked me whether I wanted it with applejack and I had to pause. At that time I didn't know it came any other way. The Pink Lady was also my first experience with egg whites in a cocktail and to this day I can still recall how that velvety texture opened my mind. So many other memories pop into my mind almost without invitation: my first Manhattan at the Remington in graduate school in Boston; my first Sazerac, which I horribly butchered at my in-laws house one Christmas many years ago. But that initial Aviation is hopelessly missing, forever lost like so many other outstanding and not so outstanding cocktails.

Its a funny thing to consider--how a cocktail can be on the edge of extinction and then become so beloved by a world of hobbyists. Granted, the idea of "extinction" might be a gross overstatement in this case. As cocktail manuals came and went after Prohibition, and so many other cocktails were consigned to the abyss, the Aviation maintained its presence, in one way or another. It may not have been a popular drink (and there's really no way to track that information), but it was still around at least for a while, if only just to help fill up cocktail books. By the 1960s, along with so many other classic cocktails, the Aviation had been relegated to the past. By this time the violette of the original was already long gone.

It is not entirely clear to me who first reintroduced the violette version of the Aviation. Some people lay it at the feet of David Wondrich, and that seems entirely likely. In his Killer Cocktails, published in 2005, Wondrich mentions the violette version, though it is not the main recipe. Reference was also made to this sky-tinted version in the first edition of Ted Haigh's Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails, published in 2004. Though both cocktail historians were obviously aware of the 1916 version before their books went to print, we may never really know who is responsible for resurrecting it.

When Haus Alpenz began importing creme de violette in 2007, the mystery surrounding the actual taste of the Ensslin version was at last solved. If you could track down a bottle or find a bar that stocked it, you could sip that refreshing floral libation and form your own opinion about which version was better. I often wonder if it was precisely because the ingredients were hard to find (maraschino liqueur wasn't all that accessible in the early 2000s) in addition to the historical interest that led to the elevation of the Aviation to near mythic status. When you consider all of the elements that are wrapped up in one cocktail--the obscure ingredients, its complicated path through history, its differing versions, its first mention buried in an obscure cocktail manual (at least it was 5 years ago)--it's easy to see how this cocktail could so easily become something bigger than just ingredients in a glass.

Now that the Aviation is so readily available, the real question becomes which do you prefer, with or without violette. Personally, I enjoy the violette version with its floral notes playing against the woody notes of the maraschino liqueur and the botanics of the gin. It's not completely because in general I am a cocktail purist. Sitting on a porch or deck pretty much anywhere on a warm evening, when there is just enough of a breeze to warrant an extra layer, listening to the sounds of the city and sipping an herbal refreshing beverage sounds just about perfect in my mind. And at that moment, when a light sheen of condensation is just beginning to show on the outside of the glass, and the last bit of light is holding out as long as it can against the encroaching blue of night, it really doesn't matter when or where I first tasted an Aviation, it only matters that I am tasting it now.

Aviation (per Robert Hess's Essential Bartender's Guide)

2 ounces gin
1/2 ounce lemon juice
1/2 ounce maraschino liqueur
1/4 ounce creme de violette

Shake ingredients with ice. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a brandied cherry.

Notes on Ingredients: I used Whitley Neil gin, Maraska maraschino, and Rothman and Winter violette.

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