I finally tracked down a bottle of crème de violette in Auckland today*. This ingredient has been eluding me for a long time now. Some years ago I sampled the Benoit Serres version in Shanghai. It was never actually sold there, but Mr. Benoit Serres attended a Shanghai food and wine show seeking an importer and I was able to sample the stuff and have a chat with him. Besides his crème de violette he also makes a couple of interesting herbal and nut infused liqueurs – I seem to remember an unusual almond infused cognac.
Today I came across a crème de violette from Briottet. The Briottet version seems fuller flavored then how I remember the Benoit Serres. The Benoit Serres had a subtle (i.e. diluted) cognac base with a violet overlay, and may have been relatively high proof (25%?). The Briottet seems more like intense violet on a base of lowish proof (18%) neutral alcohol. It has a strong aroma, happily more reminiscent of a flower shop (or maybe potpourri) than a soap factory. On tasting you get a rich, smooth, fairly deep violet taste that lingers on the tongue. The finish is really quite long, and somehow never turns to soap. While I cannot taste anything besides violet, I still would not call the taste one dimensional.
I am hardly a crème de violette expert. I have only ever tasted two brands, and those several years apart. I may completely wrong about this comparison. Both Briottet and Benoit Serres seem to be good products. However, I think Briottet may pack a little more power and be more suited to mixed drinks. Most drinks using creme de violette require only small quantities, so you want to use a reasonably intense product.
After tasting some of the liqueur straight the obvious thing to do was to make an original recipe Aviation.
The Aviation is simply a gin sour sweetened with maraschino and crème de violette. The modern Aviation excludes the crème de violette, partly because it can be hard to obtain and partly because even back in the 1930s the recipe was sometimes printed without this ingredient. Most notably the influential Savoy Cocktail Book printed the recipe sans crème de violette. The Savoy contains many other misprinted recipes so this omission is as likely to have been a mistake as anything else.
2 oz gin (Plymouth)
½ oz lemon juice (strained – you want this drink as clear as possible)
1/3 oz maraschino liqueur (Maraska)
1/6 oz crème de violette (Briottet)
Shake over ice and double strain into a cocktail glass. If you don’t have crème de violette just use ½ oz maraschino.
You should end up with a potent, refreshing, and aromatic gin drink, colored the faint purple-grey of an overcast sky. Yep, it harks back to the early days of aviation, when planes flew through clouds as often as they flew above them. If it is not sweet enough try slightly increasing the liqueurs. Be careful not to overdo it though; both liqueurs are powerful tastes in their own right and can easily dominate the drink.
The crème de violette version is a definite improvement on the straight maraschino version. There is simply more going on as the violet adds an extra layer of aroma and complements the dry cherry flavors. The subtle purple tinge is also attractive.
The next thing I need to do is find some more drinks that use crème de violette. . .
Update: I also tried the Attention Cocktail from Jamie Boudreau’s site. I did not have a true absinthe handy, so I used Henri Bardoin pastis supplemented with a few drops of L’Extreme d’Absente Bitters. Those bitters are powerful, and using them like this gave a very different taste to using straight pastis. The really interesting thing in this drink is how the creme de violette stands up to the pastis/absinthe. Well worth a try anyway.
* Creme de Violette is hard enough to find that I should probably give the address of the shop, just in case someone else in Auckland reads this and wants to pick some up. The shop is Maison Vauron, located at 5 McColl St., Newmarket. They have a website at www.mvauron.co.nz, and you can phone them on 09 529 0157. Although they are mainly a wine merchant they sell quite a few interesting French aperitif type things – well worth checking out if you are interested in cocktails.