Classic cocktails make frequent appearances here, as dedicated readers are well aware. Since many of you aren’t cocktail geeks like myself, I do my best to keep that in mind when I write, particularly in terms of tone and content—believe me, we can get pretty esoteric if you let us.
I’ve also come to realize that some of you may be interested in building up your bar, but don’t have the time or money to buy everything needed to make every classic cocktail invented. You have to make some tough choices, but how do you know you’ll even like a particular cocktail after you seek out the ingredients called for in a recipe? Sure it’s considered a classic, but it may not be your cup of tea.
To make the process a bit easier, I’ve decided to compile a list of about 20-25 cocktails (haven’t decided exactly how many yet) that I consider essential for every burgeoning cocktail enthusiast to know. The cocktails on the list are mostly old mainstays, save for a few from the modern era (a couple might surprise you). You may not love all of them, but if your bar is equipped to make them, you’d be hard pressed to encounter a guest you couldn’t please.
The catch, however, is that I won’t simply post a list (which is yet to be finalized). Instead I’m going to write about each of them individually, for various Happy Hour columns whenever the fancy strikes. This way you’ll have ample time to gather the ingredients for a particular drink and become familiar with it before having to learn about the next one. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither is a good home bar.
You’ll know if a certain week’s cocktail is on this list because at the bottom of the post you’ll notice the tag “Essential Cocktail.” Click on the tag and you’ll see all the drinks with this tag, and you’ll be on your way to a well-stocked bar. Some of these essential cocktails have already been featured in previous Happy Hour columns, and as soon as I have the time I will go back and add the appropriate tag to those as well.
Since we’re talking about essential cocktails, there’s no better way to kick this off than with the top of the alphabet, the Aviation.
2 oz Gin (enough with the “I can’t do Juniper” bullshit already, we’re talking serious cocktails for fuck’s sake!)
½ oz Maraschino liqueur (NOT Maraschino cherry syrup, but a bittersweet liqueur made from Marasca cherries)
½ oz fresh lemon juice
1 barspoon Crème de Violette (optional)
Tools: shaker, strainer
Glass: chilled cocktail glass or coupe
Shake ingredients with ice and strain into your glass.
The Aviation is one of the last great pre-Prohibition cocktails, having been invented just a few years before the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment. It made its first appearance in print in 1916 in Recipes for Mixed Drinks by Hugo Ensslin, who bartended at the Hotel Wallick in Times Square near 43rd and Broadway.
It’s unclear whether Mr. Ensslin created this cocktail as an homage to a specific aviator—perhaps Adolphe Pégoud or René Fonck, who were some of the first flying aces, battling the Germans in the air during World War I—or as a more general tribute to the Pioneer Era of human flight. What is clear, however—as clear as the blue sky in fact—is Ensslin’s purposeful use of Crème de Violette to achieve a light violet hue reminiscent of the skies that mankind was barely beginning to explore.
By 1930, however, it appears that barmen began dropping the Crème de Violette from the Aviation recipe, as evidenced by its omission from the Savoy Cocktail published that same year. Perhaps this was because Crème de Violette was an increasingly difficult ingredient to come by, and only its recent availability in American markets has gotten mixologists reinterested in making an authentic Aviation.
Truth be told, however, the Crème de Violette is a non-essential ingredient in this otherwise impeccably balanced, essential cocktail. If you have or can easily acquire it then surely do so, as it adds a violet hue and a lightly floral top note that the drink’s creator intended. If not, I wouldn’t fret over it. In fact, despite the availability of the floral liqueur, many mixologists still prefer the version without it.
I enjoy both.
*Got a cocktail question? Hit me on twitter @paystyle, email me at payman(at)lifesacocktail(dot)com, or simply drop me a comment below.