The Liquid History of the Aviation

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Author: Douglas Blyde
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As its centenary approaches, Douglas Blyde delves into the liquid history of the Aviation, a gin sour prompted by the Wright Brothers first flights and the ensuing frenzy with air travel in America…

Carey Hanlon, who is almost in silhouette against a forest of gin bottles gently lit by green-shaded bankers’ lights, shakes a classic Aviation into life at the Merchant House bar beneath Bow Lane. The result is irresistible: a fragrant potion redolent of Palma Violets, but crisp too, to the point of near tartness, and super long-lived on the palate.

According to Alessandro Palazzo of Dukes of St. James’s, The Aviation sour (gin, lemon juice, maraschino liqueur, maraschino cherry garnish and Crème de Violette) was created by Hugo Ensslin, the then 30 year-old German born head bartender at Wallick House Hotel, Times Square, New York (it appears in Ensslin’s 1916 ‘Recipes for Mixed Drinks’). Luca Cordiglieri of China Tang at The Dorchester believes it could have even older origins, though. ‘It’s not a certainty that Ensslin invented the drink; he was the first to print it but “Mixographer” and author of “Imbibe!”, David Wondrich found a reference to the “latest” Aviation in 1911 at The Albany, New York. At the time there were two other cocktails sharing the name Aviation, inspired by the sport of flight practised by the very rich and the very glamorous...’

However, by 1930, Stroud-born Harry Craddock, who swapped prohibition-time USA to craft cocktails for elite Londoners, had omitted the Crème de Violette from the recipe in his perpetually-in-print almanac, ‘The Savoy Cocktail Book’.

While some barkeeps speculate that the ingredient casualty stems from an inaccurate lifting of Ensslin’s recipe, others insist Craddock purposely ‘upgraded’ it. Indeed, the aromatic balance Crème de Violette brings to the otherwise subtly-bracing sour can polarise, as Master Mixologist who served in The Rainbow Room, Dale DeGroff attested at an event billed ‘Do Not Resuscitate’. He remarked that the traditional Aviation, with its perfumed notes, ‘...tastes like hand soap...’ Such strong sentiments have led barkeeps to experiment with violet-free, Maraschino-forward versions, including Luxardo Brand Ambassador, G. Franklin’s ‘Howard Hughes’. He explained: ‘It’s named after a well-known aviator with a twist: he snapped, so we put in four crushed sugar snap peas alongside 40ml gin, 20ml, maraschino, 2ml lemon and 10ml elderflower. It’s essentially an Aviation with a different floral component.’

But, for me, Crème de Violette brings identity. That the precious liqueur was scarcely in production for much of last century has ensured the original cocktail an elusive reputation. ‘It enjoyed a re-birth around 2000, when Crème de Violette became available once again,’ remarks Salvatore Calabrese, who now mixes a fine example at his Park Lane, Playboy Club bar. Luca Cordiglieri, agrees. Crème de violette gives more complexity and also a unique colour.’

A good Aviation is a model of restraint, especially in hue. ‘Bars too often make it purple,’ says G Franklin, who recommends no more than 5ml of Crème De Violette per serve. ‘You could even consider spraying the violette over the surface,’ he adds. My favourite versions appear more akin to a mildly-optimistic summer’s day in London rather than the deep, cobalt blue of a Mediterranean sky. Perhaps in subconscious tribute to the drink, every wall in my home seems to mimic the colour, care of Dulux – ‘Imperial Mauve 5’.

Aviation: New Era

Sadly, like the Wallick House Hotel itself, Ensslin’s pre-prohibition gin of choice, El Bart, is no longer produced, although the cocktail has inspired a new raft of distillers, including Thomas Mooney, first president of the American Craft Distillers Association, to specifically craft a style of gin to chime within the recipe. Mooney’s handsomely-packaged Aviation gin fuses untraditionally flamboyant botanicals such as lavender with Indian sarsaparilla. ‘Eight years ago, mixologist turned my business partner, Ryan Magarian had an “aha moment” at Olive’s Bar at the Bellagio, Las Vegas,’ says Mooney. ‘It came in the form of an Aviation. Ryan had never been served gin that way. Previously, as with 80% of Americans, it had been something simply to mix with tonic…’

Meanwhile, as well as using metal and leather to age classic cocktails, ‘Silk and Grain’ in the city have found a new generation of customers prepared to sample their grown-up take on the Aviation, which is barrel-aged in small Spanish oak casks for three weeks, with citrus mixed in at time of service.

The Aviation, 100 years on or more from its first serve, and for decades in danger of extinction on account of the rare violette, is, for me, the sleek sibling to the Gin Martini. Slimmer-seeming in alcohol, it is immeasurably complex and ultra-appetising – a gateway aperitif to the bounteous world of gin…

Hugo Ensslin’s Recipe

1½ oz El Bart Gin ¾ oz lemon juice 2 dashes Luxardo Maraschino Liqueur 2 dashes Crème de Violette Shake well in a mixing glass with cracked ice, strain and serve.

Salvatore Calabrese’s Recipe

50ml Gin 15ml Luxardo Maraschino Liqueur 2 or 3 dashes Crème de Violette 15ml fresh lemon juice

Pour ingredients into a shaker filled with ice. Shake and strain into a chilled coupe. Garnish with a Luxardo Maraschino cherry.

Tweaked for my palate

50ml strong, Juniper and citrus-rich, Plymouth Gin 15ml Luxardo Maraschino Liqueur 4 dashes Crème de Violette 15ml fresh lemon juice (organic is best, suggests Palazzo) Luxardo Maraschino Cherry

Stir, consistently, in the frozen bowl of an ice cream maker for two minutes with ice cubes of distilled water for purity. Double strain into a chilled martini triangle. Garnish with a gin-cleansed Maraschino cherry (to remove potential for over-sweetness) and lemon twist (first used to spritz the surface of the drink).

About the Author

Douglas Blyde is a maker of television documentaries, turned writer, consultant, presenter, high society sommelier and enthusiastic cook, Douglas Blyde has been described as ‘one of the most respected (and well-fed) experts on eating out in the capital’. For nearly 10 years he has written in-depth profiles on the minds behind restaurants, drinks, iconic design and travel.

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