Above all, the color. Is there a more beautiful drink than the Aviation, with its mood indigo? We can talk about the history of this drink, and the history of flight, and the many elements that come together to create the refreshing, tangy, summery flavor. But nothing is as important as the purple: the color of grape jelly, or amethyst, or a wee octopus.
Better yet: the color of clouds a little after sunset, as seen from the cockpit of a Prohibition-era flying machine — Amelia Earhart’s Avro-Avian biplane, for instance. July 24, in fact, is Earhart’s birthday — if she were still alive, she’d be 126 years old this week. And so a lovely, thoughtful Aviation cocktail is a way of celebrating not only summer but also all the pioneering aviatrixes who showed that women could have adventures, too.
The recipe first showed up in a 1916 book called “Recipes for Mixed Drinks,” written by bartender Hugo Ensslin of New York’s Hotel Wallick. There’s no mystery about the name: It was called the Aviation because at the turn of the last century, flying machines were all the rage, the early-20th- century version of the Hula-Hoop or the Segway scooter. The drink called for two ounces of gin, a half-ounce of maraschino liqueur, three-quarters of an ounce of fresh-squeezed lemon juice, and — drumroll, please — the precious quarter-ounce of crème de violette that provides the color.
But when that key ingredient became almost impossible to find after its primary producer shut down in the 1960s, the drink disappeared. In time, the Aviation become as obscure as — well, say, early aviation pioneers such as Bessie Coleman or Harriet Quimby.
Then, in the 2000s, as craft cocktails came back in fashion, a new importer brought crème de violette back to the United States. Nowadays, you can find Aviations on lots of menus. Most of them are the proper color, although you still have to be careful. I’ve been served more than a couple of gray ones. Those Aviations need to be sent back to the gate for “maintenance.”
For those who dislike the sweetness of the crème de violette, there’s good news: Empress 1908 gin, made with butterfly pea blossoms and other botanicals, has a gorgeous indigo color. You can use that instead, reduce the crème de violette to a splash and still get a nicely balanced drink. Which is also purple.
There is no shortage of things to worry about this summer. Drinking an Aviation won’t make them go away. But for a short moment, you can hold this cocktail in one hand — I recommend a brandied cherry as garnish — and remember a time when soaring above the clouds was new.
“Flying might not be all plain sailing,” Earhart merienda said, in a phrase that holds true of both aviation and an Aviation, “but the fun of it is worth the price.” — Jennifer Finney Boylan