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The Rise and Fall of the Aviation Cocktail

Once a secret handshake among the cocktail cognoscenti, the Aviation enjoyed a decade-long heyday before falling back into obscurity.

What goes up must come down.

Such is the case with the appropriately named Aviation cocktail, once the darling of the cocktail cognoscenti. During the early days of the cocktail renaissance, the drink was one of several that circled the globe as “bartender handshakes”—or cult drinks favored and shared among the bar world’s in-crowd.

These days, the Aviation—a mix of gin, lemon juice, maraschino liqueur and crème de violette—is less likely to get a handshake than the back of a bartender’s hand. “There are still one or two people out there who think it’s some sort of ‘secret handshake’ drink,” says Jeffrey Morgenthaler, bar manager at Clyde Common in Portland, Oregon. “And I guess there are still a few people who actually like it. But I make about six of those things a year these days.”

A number of other bartenders echo that accounting, including Tom Macy of Brooklyn’s Clover ClubMartin Cate of the San Francisco gin bar, Whitechapel, and Leo Robitschek of New York’s The NoMad. The drink is still ordered, but not in the numbers it once was.

So what happened to cause such a touchstone of modern mixology, not so long ago a fixture on every hip cocktail list, to fall so far, so fast? Let’s start with how it became a modern bartender sensation in the first place.

Though typically referred to as a “forgotten classic” in the early years of its revival, the Aviation had never completely vanished, thanks to its inclusion in the oft-consulted Savoy Cocktail Book, published in 1930. However, when curious young bartenders commenced their spelunking ways in the 1990s, digging through libraries and used books stores in search of old cocktail manuals and the formulae they contained, the Aviation quickly became one of the prime beneficiaries of their research.

One of those drink detectives was San Francisco bartender Paul Harrington, who inserted the Aviation, as well as a history of the drink, into his seminal 1998 book, Cocktail. “I was not aware of anyone else making the drink at that time,” remembers Harrington. The drink was also featured in other influential volumes, including William Grimes’ history of the cocktail, Straight Up or On the Rocks (1993, reissued in 2001), and The Craft of the Cocktail by Dale DeGroff (2002).

Those books all featured the Savoy recipe, which called for only gin, lemon juice and maraschino liqueur. A sea change in the Aviation’s fortunes came when an earlier recipe was found in Hugo Ensslin’s 1916 Recipes for Mixed Drinks. That spec called for a fourth ingredient, the then-mysterious crème de violette. (Drinks historian David Wondrich, in the introduction to the 2009 reproduction of Ensslin’s book, memorably recounts how, in 2004, he nearly dropped his beat-up volume in a bowl of soup upon clapping eyes on the Ensslin Aviation.)

The new evidence arguably added to the drink’s mystique in the eyes of bartenders, and kicked its rise into high gear.

Morgenthaler first glimpsed the recipe in Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails by Ted Haigh (2004). (Haigh advocates the Savoy version, but noted that the original recipe contained violette.) He never cared for the drink, even then, finding it too sour and floral, but he understood why his fellow bartenders began to serve it.

“Oh, that’s an easy one,” says Morgenthaler. “It was purely because maraschino and violette were nearly impossible to find. It developed this almost mythological status among those of us who had never tried it.” Add to that its pre-Prohibition status and the then-aborning thirst for gin cocktails, and the Aviation had the goods in spades. It was primed to be belle of the bibulous ball.

“I think the addition of the violette was an unexpected curveball that perked a lot of bartenders’ ears up,” says Macy of Clover Club. “Plus, the name is great and it’s easy to make. It fit the bill of the era when all these classic, vintage, what-have-you drinks were being excavated.”

The cocktail was so au courant that a craft gin out of Portland, Oregon, released in 2006, adopted the drink as its name.

“I first enjoyed an Aviation in 2003 and it was the ‘aha’ drink for me with regards to recognizing a wider opportunity to reach drinkers with gin,” says bartender Ryan Magarian, who collaborated with House Spirits on Aviation Gin. “Specifically, it represented a realization to me that there were vintage drinks beyond the Martini and G&T that might better align with the modern palate.” (Magarian points out, however, that the Aviation he fell in love with was the violette-less Savoy version.)

“I think people accepted drinks were good because of the street cred they got for being a classic. So perhaps there was a bit of an ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ situation.”

The drink inspired more than one new spirit. Soon, crème de violette was no longer so hard to find. Eric Seed, founder of Haus Alpenz, importer and creator of once-vanished liquors and liqueurs, was just getting his young company off the ground when, in 2006, he asked Wondrich what products young bartenders were clamoring for. “He said there’s no violette stateside,” recalls Seed.

Within a year, Seed was importing Rothman & Winter Crème de Violette from Austria, a version made specifically for Haus Alpenz. Its main reason for being was to make Aviations.

Seed believes the arrival of crème de violette in the States made the Aviation one of the first lost classics that cocktail bartenders could finally execute once again. Because of that, says Seed, “It took on a fascination.”

Until, gradually, it didn’t. In 2012, at a Manhattan Cocktail Classic seminar about lost classics that ought to have remained lost, titled “Do Not Resuscitate,” DeGroff lit into the Aviation, declaring it tasted “like hand soap.”

Within a few years, buyer’s remorse had settled in and bartenders and consumers came to question their initial enthusiasm for the cocktail. “I think in the last five to eight years or so there’s been a pendulum swing away from the speakeasy, pre-Prohibition cocktail mindset,” says Macy, who is still a fan of the Aviation. “Also, people and bartenders probably feel freer to express their honest opinion nowadays. I think people accepted drinks were good because of the street cred they got for being a classic. So perhaps there was a bit of an ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ situation.”

Morgenthaler is less kind to the cocktail: “There’s often a reason why these drinks became forgotten classics,” he says. “A lot of them just weren’t good enough to hold on to people’s interest.”

There’s no danger of the Aviation disappearing completely; the recipe has been printed in too many cocktail books and imprinted onto the brains of too many bartenders for that to happen. But its brief heyday, which lasted just over a decade, is probably over.

“Maybe it somehow epitomizes the age when we were all drinking the classic cocktail Kool-Aid, so there’s a backlash,” adds Macy. “In a way, it’s the same phenomenon, just in reverse.”

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