Homemade Cocktails — Experiments, Critiques & Travels
Way, way back in 1916, a little-known Bavarian-born bartender named Hugo Ensslin self-published a wholly unremarkable little book. Covered with stiffened, nondescript brown paper and given an unassuming title — Recipes for Mixed Drinks — the book contained the recipes for over 400 libations that were being mixed at bars across the City of New York. Many of the drinks, it is assumed, were served up by Mr. Ensslin himself at the Hotel Wallick (at Broadway and 43rd, long since demolished), where he worked as head bartender. The publishing of a cocktail book — and including advertisements for the booze of the day — was undoubtedly seen as a way to make an extra buck, but Ensslin’s book did not garner much acclaim, and it remains one of the rarest cocktail books ever printed. After a second, updated printing was made in 1917, Ensslin himself drops out of history; nearly all the evidence we have of his existence are ships’ manifests, public directory listings, and his little book — the last bar guide to come out of New York before Prohibition.
Fast-forward to the early 21st Century, when craft cocktails are starting to make a comeback. Bartenders and amateur cocktailians are scouring bookstores and the internet for all the old cocktail tomes they can find. One of them, drink historian David Wondrich, spotted Ensslin’s book on Ebay, placed a bid, and won the auction with little or no competition. When the book arrived (at lunchtime), he flipped it open to page number seven, then proceeded to spill soup all over himself — or nearly so.
The commotion was due to the following:
- 2 ounces Gin [Aviation suggested]
- 3/4 ounce Lemon Juice
- 1/3 – 1/2 ounce Luxardo Maraschino Liqueur
- 1/4 ounce Rothman & Winter Créme de Violette
Shake with ice and fine strain into a coupe or cocktail glass. A Meyer lemon peel makes a nice garnish, if you have them lying around.
Cobbled together from numerous sources, including Ensslin, but the proportions are mainly from The PDT Cocktail Book.
In 2004, the Aviation had a standing reputation as the drink of the emerging cocktail connoisseur — it was brisk, refreshing, and, perhaps most important, it used maraschino liqueur, which was especially hard to come by. If you had a bottle, you knew what you were about, and were seriously into mixed drinks; obtaining a bottle of Luxardo won kudos and bragging rights. Given the drink’s semi-obscure source (Harry Craddock’s 1930 Savoy Cocktail Book), its Prohibition-era pedigree, and its rare, secret ingredient, the Aviation acted a badge of honor or a secret handshake for the classic cocktail crowd.
So you see, the discovery of an earlier Avaition recipe came as a bit of a shock to those who had considered the Deco-era Savoy version as the definitive one. The unearthing of Ensslin’s book pushed the earliest-known listing of the Aviation Cocktail back 14 years (though there are vague references pointing back to 1911), and revealed the reason behind the drink’s name, for a fourth ingredient was present in the 1916 recipe: créme de violette. A scant teaspoon (or a nice, round 1/4 ounce) resulted in a cocktail with a pale, periwinkle/sky blue hue, clearing up any issues of nomeclature. Not only that, but Ensslin’s book re-defined the origin of many other drinks that had been attributed to Harry Craddock: further perusal of Recipes for Mixed Drinks revealed that he had, in fact, borrowed 146 of Ensslin’s recipes for the Savoy’s drinks manual. Patrick Gavin Duffy, author of the equally-influential Official Mixer’s Manual, borrowed even more recipes from Ensslin.
As a result of the new discovery, a split formed between Aviation drinkers: those who prefer the Modern, violette-free version and those who enjoy the Original, sky-blue cocktail.
I’ve had both versions, and personally, I prefer the Original. In the Modern version, the maraschino liqueur is just too much: you end up with a tart, crisp wallop of drink that is dominated by the earthy, woodsy cherries of the maraschino. If you reduce the maraschino a tad and add a small dose of violette, however, you end up with a much more complex and pleasing drink, one that seems to change subtly over the few minutes you spend sipping it.
And though it may seem a bit trite, I like an Aviaton made with Aviation Gin — the lavender of the spirit is emphasized by the violette and maraschino, and the overall feel of the drink is a bit rounder, or more velvety…cloud-like, you might say. No wonder the guys in Portland named their gin after the cocktail. Other American gins — Junipero (peppery), Death’s Door (crisp), even Bluecoat (of which I’m not especially fond, but lemony) — mix very well in the drink, while the sturdy London dry gins are, I feel, best left for the Modern Aviation.
Speaking of the Modern version: if you’d like to try one, I recommend the drink as it’s made at Employees Only in New York…
- 1-1/2 ounces Plymouth Gin
- 1 ounce Lemon Juice
- 3/4 ounce Luxardo Maraschino Liqueur
- 1/4 Simple Syrup (1-1/3 to 1)
- Garnish: Dash of Angostura bitters, lemon wheel, brandied cherry.
Shake with ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Add the bitters to the top of the drink, then garnish with the lemon and cherry.
From Speakeasy, by Jason Kosmas & Dushan Zaric (10 Speed Press, 2010)
By far the smoothest version of the modernized Aviation I’ve tried, the EO keeps the maraschino in check and ups the complexity of he drink with a dash of bitters at the end — it’s a bit like the Fitzgerald, in fact. While it’s not sky blue, EO’s Aviation comes out a lovely sunset pink when stirred — still valid, as the sky takes on many different hues, so why not retain the name?
So, if you’re searching for more (and simple) uses for maraschino liqueur, and if you’ve decided to spring for a bottle of violette, give both Aviations a test flight and see which one you like best. Either way, you won’t be disappointed.
Photos by IJL.