I can think of few venues more satisfyingly appropriate for discussing the intricacies of fine mixed drinks than the Hemingway bar tucked neatly away inside the Place Vendome’s outspoken Ritz hotel and to my delight on a warm July evening in 2010, the day before setting off to sample the absinthe of Barcelona, I find myself doing just that. Here in Paris the dress code is ever so slightly more relaxed than that of the hotel’s sister across the channel and on any old weeknight the mood here is instantly seduced by the austerity of traditional French chic - and without, may I add, succumbing to the city’s more stressful cousin which I often refer to as ‘arsehole French chic’. I lean to avoid the fast steps of the waiter swerving between the tables at breakneck speed departing suggestions and advice to the crowd of gentlefolk in the room who look like they were born to be there.
The banter around the room, although predominantly in English, echoes any number of dialects and consists of light-hearted anecdotes, serious political matters and the occasional bouts of the serial name dropping one would associate with a crowd of this nature. I avoid conversation with most - no time and no real interest - except one person. And this is the one person in the room, besides myself, who is nothin’ but business. The man’s name is Colin Field, the head bartender at the Hemingway and, like all good bartenders, a real stand up guy. Unlike some of my experiences in this city it doesn’t matter who you are if you’re looking for an audience, as long as you’ve got respect and passion for what you’re on about.
We discuss cocktails (of course) and the international bar scene and as suspected our tastes rarely clash. Mr Field is a man after my own heart with regards to his penchant for the classics. He first mixes me a cracking Gibson and I smile before the liquid even hits my lips. It is
not often (with the exception of the States) you can leave the shores of Britain and find yourself a Martini mixed the way it was seventy years ago and having not been back to my home town for some time, I guzzle the mixture down with glee.
The man is very busy and despite having little time for such a persistent fanboy as myself, seems refreshingly interested in my intrigues and points of view. We converse in several matters and subjects move quickly as they do when one is at work and two people tend to agree on most things. Eventually however, we come to our inevitable disagreement and my memory is violently catapulted back to a city that could not be more different, to a bar that could not be more different and with a bartender who, despite his unquestionable skill, could not be more different.
The year is 2008, the city is London, on Old Compton Street to be precise and the bar is the old London Academy of Bartenders (today known simply as The Academy). I’m perched at the bar with an old friend to my right and I’m being criticised by the man behind the stick about several points of reference and my pronunciation of the word maraschino (the guy was Italian so I kind of didn’t have a leg to stand on in that corner). The drink in question is the Aviation Cocktail, a little number consisting predominantly of gin and lemon juice and given subtle character by it’s maraschino liqueur content.
It’s the fourth and final ingredient here which causes all the fuss. I’m certain, mostly because I mix them for myself on a pretty regular basis, that the drink I’m ordering on this particular occasion contains but a half bar spoon of crème de violette. Crème de violette I hear you say! Surely not! And yes I will concede that this particular ingredient and the words classic cocktail are rarely placed amongst the same crowd in the serious world of the cocktail. But hold your horses! As the French say, I have reason. Reason indeed, however it did take me a while to find out what that reason was.
Why would Colin Field and the boys down at LAB differ so much from my views on matters that so often bring us together in such camaraderie – all be it in a very us versus them kind of way? At first the only thing I had to go on was the fact that I am a bartender and naturally that meant that it was simply an impossibility I could be wrong. I could not remember for the life of me however, where I had originally come up with my current recipe (by this point in my career I was in the business of writing the menus for the bars I mixed in). After considerable verbal research, an eventual nose into David Wondrich’s sublime classic cocktail encyclopaedia Imbibe! did the job and several years of debating across the stick were finally laid to rest.
In fact to add or omit the Violette in an Aviation Cocktail, it depends entirely where and when you base the origins of this drink. Evidently there are two choices. For the Academy/Hemingway version we must look to 1930 and the original publication of Harry Craddock’s Savoy Cocktail Book that has served us fine British bartenders so well over the
years. Over here Craddock’s word is still considered the be all and end all and living in an age when I truly believe a cocktail made in London is the best cocktail around, who could disagree?
Well Wondrich does for a start and the lad has a point. He’s done more research on this particular subject than anyone else I’ve read and he’s come up with some pretty strong evidence that in fact the Aviation first came into existence on the other side of the Atlantic. Wondrich reveals that the first recipe in print for the drink came from “the 1916 Recipes for Mixed Drinks, by the thirty-year-old German-born head bartender at the Wallick House Hotel in Times Square, Hugo Ensslin.” Adding further fuel to the fire, Wondrich continues by explaining that the Aviation was not the only cocktail Craddock had pinched from Ensslin’s book.
Under this evidence the drink is not only an American creation, but also a pre-prohibition offering. Regardless to say, Ensslin’s recipe includes our controversial ingredient; the slightest of dashes of crème de violette. With this information Wondrich also uncovers the answer to one more mystery surrounding the drink, that being of course the Aviation’s name. The new sport of aviation was just beginning to boom in the states at the time of the drinks creation offering a reasonable enough answer to our final question; however it wouldn’t be right if I didn’t finish off this article by going back to the point of my original argument. You see by adding a touch of crème de violette to the mixture before shaking, on pouring the drink’s colour will have changed from yellow to a crisp sky blue and thus the Aviation has it’s name.
1.5oz Gin (Plymouth or Beefeater both go fantastically well),
0.75oz Freshly squeezed Lemon Juice,
0.25oz Maraschino Liqueur
Half a bar spoon of Creme de Violette
Of course this drink works fantastically well without the violette, although if this is your preference may I also suggest a White Lady cocktail. If like me you do go in for the purple stuff (and a slightly sweeter drink), make your second drink of the night a Clover Club.