The Basics History & Trends

6 Things You Should Know About the Aviation

Including how it nearly lost its signature hue to a bartender’s error.

Aviation cocktail
Image: / Tim Nusog

The turbulence experienced by the delicate and dreamy Aviation cocktail has all the rise, fall and rise-again dramatics of a rollicking trans-Atlantic journey. But its drinkers’ view of the cocktail’s now-famed lilac hue, the color of twilight skies, was almost obscured by a simple but near-devastating bit of cloudy-with-a-chance-of-forgetfulness recipe fumbling. Add in the whims of fashion and the wide distribution of a not-quite-right version of the drink in the early days of the modern cocktail renaissance, and this flower of the cocktail canon was nearly grounded for good. Where did the Aviation come from, how did it nearly crash and burn, and what saved the day? These are six facts to know.

1. It Was Invented by a German Bartender 

A German immigrant, Hugo Ensslin worked in hospitality roles in myriad hotels on the Eastern Seaboard. During his stint as the head bartender at New York City’s Hotel Wallick, he wrote a 400-plus-recipe workhorse of a bar book called “Recipes for Mixed Drinks” in 1916. Not only was this the tome in which the Aviation made its debut, it also happened to be one of the final American books on cocktails published during the preamble to Prohibition. Unfortunately, Ensslin didn’t live to see the day when he’d shake up legal versions of the drink once again—he committed suicide in 1928, five years before the Volstead Act would be repealed.

2. Its Name Is a Nod to Aeronautical Technology

In the early 20th century, two crazy brothers launched a pile of cobbled-together spruce wood skyward, powered by a gas engine. And it worked. After the famed Wright Brothers flew the Kitty Hawk for a successful 12 seconds in 1903, the world became obsessed with propelling humans into the air. By the start of World War I in 1914, airplanes were sophisticated machines capable of battle in the skies. By the time of the Aviation cocktail’s invention, we weren’t just dreaming about soaring in the clouds, we were doing it.

3. The Savoy Stomped Its Key Ingredient

Many a modern drinks-maker has consulted London bartender Harry Croddock’s famed “The Savoy Cocktail Book” to mine for near-buried boozy treasure. But bartenders are human, too. Craddock included the Aviation in his 1930 tome, but he forgot the crème de violette, an inarguably key ingredient for both color and flavor. Or perhaps he just didn’t like it. Either way, his recipe called for 1/3 part lemon juice, 2/3 parts gin and 2 dashes maraschino. That’s one tart drink—and without its signature hue, the point of the sky-at-sunset reference is lost.  

4. Crème de Violette Wilted

Crème de violette is a (usually) brandy-based liqueur that gets its color from the maceration of violets. Its production started in the 1800s in Europe, and for a while, it was even produced here in the States. But as the liqueur was already on the obscure side post-Prohibition, its presence in the U.S. disappeared entirely in the mid-20th century—that is, until Eric Seed came along. Seed is the owner of the Minneapolis importer Haus Alpenz and has made a living from seeking out obscure alcohol gems. Thanks to him, the first crème de violette available stateside in decades was imported from Austria into the U.S. in 2007, and suddenly, the Aviation in Ensslin’s original form could be resurrected. 

5. Crème de Violette Has Rebloomed

Thanks to Seed importing the Austrian Rothman & Winter crème de violette, the liqueur is no longer the shrinking violet of the spirits world. Today, producers like The Bitter Truth, Giffard, Tempus Fugit, Combier, Golden Moon, Lee Spirits and other enterprising producers make their own as well. 

6. Its Ingredients Are Simple but Leave Little Room for Error

The ingredients you need to make an Aviation are gin, crème de violette, maraschino and lemon juice. Easy, right? But kind of like those violet-less and cheek-suckingly sour post-Prohibition versions of the drink demonstrated, keeping the tart, herbaceous and sweet elements in proper balance is key. So while you may be famed among your friends for your jiggerless drink-making skills or can pour a mean eyeballed Negroni, the Aviation is not the drink with which to kick craft to the curb. Measure the components of this one carefully to avoid overdosing on potpourri-like flavors or suck-a-lemon sourness.