As I've mentioned before, I live in the boonies, which is lovely but not exactly hopping with art museums, ethnic cuisine or cool historic bars where you can order a vintage cocktail. So, when I visit my family in Los Angeles (or go to any big city), I try to cram in as much of that stuff as I can.
On my latest trip, last week, I went in search of a liqueur called Crème de Violette that was recently reintroduced in the United States after decades off the market. I had read about it on the blog Rowley's Whiskey Forge, where Matthew Rowley reported that floral, especially violet, scented cocktails were all the rage at the latest Tales of the Cocktail convention in New Orleans. Austrian distiller Rothman & Winter makes a Crème de Violette from Alpine violets that is imported by Haus Alpenz. Now, Robert Cooper of Philadelphia-based Charles Jacquin et Cie has resurrected his family's recipe for Crème Yvette, another violet-scented liqueur that was discontinued in 1969. The company already had a hit with its elderflower-flavored liqueur, St. Germain, introduced in 2007.
The idea of violet liqueur intrigued me. I occasionally like to buy those old-fashioned violet pastilles in a tin, and, despite my earlier rice pudding disaster, I find rose water similarly appealing. Some flavors can transport you to another place; the light perfume of violets somehow evokes another era of dainty gloves and nosegays. The fact that the Rothman & Winters Crème de Violette comes in a sleek art deco bottle made it all the more attractive to me. I am a sucker for good package design—even if you don't end up liking the contents, the bottle will look good on your bar.
But I wondered: Why the sudden revival of floral flavors now? Robert Hess, co-founder of the Museum of the American Cocktail, told me he thought the resurgence was "tied up with the overall renewed interest in the old pre-Prohibition classics."
Even the venerable, though soon-to-be-defunct, Gourmet magazine had an article about violet liqueurs in its October issue. Pulitzer-winning food writer Jonathan Gold (whose column in L.A. Weekly I always read when I lived in California) wrote, "Violet-scented cocktails, once fairly common, almost disappeared 50 years ago, dismissed as auntly and old-fashioned, unable to compete with the more immediate pleasures of Mai Tais or Rusty Nails."
He wrote about a drink made with Crème Yvette, called an Eagle's Dream, that he was served at a speakeasy-type establishment behind the legendary Cole's sandwich shop in downtown L.A. (Cole's purports to be the inventor of the french dip sandwich, a claim disputed by rival Philippe's "The Original" a few miles away). So, when it turned out that my fiancé and I would be meeting up with a friend who lives a block away from Cole's, I seized my opportunity to try a violet cocktail.
The speakeasy wasn't open yet, but the regular Cole's bar—which, according to a sign outside the building, is the oldest "public house" in the city, established in 1908—had Crème de Violette in stock. The dapper bartender mixed me up a classic cocktail, the Aviation. It was made with---in addition to the violet liqueur---gin, lemon juice, Luxardo maraschino liqueur and simple syrup (a deviation from the original recipe), and finished with a gorgeous, deep-red, imported maraschino cherry (which bears no resemblance to the candied pink version you usually find in domestic bars). The cocktail was a beautiful cloudy violet color, and tasted even better than I had imagined—slightly sweet and somewhat sour, with the faintest hint of violet perfume. My fiancé said it tasted like a purple Sweet Tart, which he meant as a compliment.
Now that I'm home, I'm kind of wishing I had picked up a bottle to grace the wet bar in my house. There are some other classic violet cocktails, such as the Blue Moon, I'd like to try. I guess I'll have to wait until my next L.A. trip.