NO SHRINKING VIOLETS HERE
As expected, it turns out I’m wrong. While doing the research for this post, I learned that purple is just a mix of red and blue, while violet is actually a color in the spectrum of light. Who knew?
So, why this fascination with violets, and things violet? Violets, the flower, have been around for pretty much forever. They are documented in ancient Greece around 500 BC, and likely existed well before that. They were used by the Greeks in wine, food, and even medicine. They were seen as a sign of fertility and love, and used in purported love potions. Pliny counseled that a garland of them be used to get rid of headaches.
There are almost five hundred different varieties of violets, which are grown pretty much all over the US. They are the state flower of Illinois, and legend has it that Napoleon put them on Josephine’s grave. They have a very special and recognizable smell, which goes away quickly, as they contain a chemical that desensitizes the nose. They are an edible flower, and actually have some nutritional value; they contain more Vitamin C than most vegetables (https://www.teleflora.com/blog/7-fun-facts-about-violets/).
Violets can be used in many recipes, balms, and other concoctions, including infused oils, lip balms, aloes, jelly, and vinegar. But our interest today goes to another use, almost forgotten by time, but making a strong comeback in today’s bar scene - Crème de Violette.
Crème de Violette origin and history
This liqueur goes back to the beginning of the 19th century, with European origins. Violet sweets and candies were all the rage, and the liqueur was developed in parallel to that craze. It was made by steeping violet leaves in brandy, and adding sugars to the mixture. The “crème” indicates the use of sugars, versus cream (think Bailey’s), which has the addition of dairy products. This drink was originally served by itself, or with a vermouth, until Hugo Ensslin published an early bartender’s guide, and had this liqueur used in a cocktail called an Aviation. The Aviation, and the Crème de Violette itself, were very popular during the Roaring 20’s and into the depression era. Prohibition and changing tastes drove a decline in popularity, and, it became harder and harder to find in the US, until it disappeared completely. Contributing to the disappearance was a typo in a well-noted bar guide from the 1930s, the Savoy Cocktail guide, which inadvertently left the Crème de Violette out of the recipe for the Aviation.
In 2007, it was reintroduced to America as Rothman and Winter Crème de Violette was imported into the states. Their version was made from two different varieties of violets, combined with a German brandy (https://drinkstraightup.com/2013/04/15/creme-de-violette/). It is now much more widely available, and you should be able to find it not only through online retailers, and in larger liquor stores. While there will be some variation in taste due to the distiller’s selected combination of violets and spirits, in general, there will be a floral nose to the liqueur, mostly violet, but with a subtle smell of sugar. Taste wise, Crème de Violette will have a very strong violet flavor, even sweeter than the scent, which will stay consistent through the finish. As far as the actual look and color of the neat liqueur, see below (courtesy listal.com):
Creme de Violette
Looks brilliant fluted
Crème de Violette drinks
As we move toward the 2020s, many of the popularities of the 1920s are showing up again. The Aviation is a great example of this. I can’t predict if it will be joined by flappers and the discovery of the next Fitzgerald, but you can transport yourself back with this libation.
The Aviation itself is a combination of Crème de Violette, gin, maraschino liqueur, and lemon juice (https://drinkstraightup.com/2013/02/25/aviation/). In this cocktail, the floral scent and taste of the violets will be blended in with the citrus tones of the lemon juice and gin, resulting in a more tart than sweet taste. Here’s a look at the finished product (photo courtesy Pinterest):
Creme de Violette, Gin, Maraschino, and Lemon Juice
If you like the Aviation, you might like several other cocktails based on the liqueur. Recipes for the Adelita, the Sun Prairie, the Crème de Canne Collins, Forest, Left Coast, the Liberation, the Violet Sunset, the Violet Winter, and the Gray Ghost are published online.
Make your own Crème de Violette
If you are a do-it-yourselfer, you can even make your Crème de Violette. While there are many variations on the Internet, I like this one. You can change the quantities based on your personal preferences, but try to keep the same ratio of ingredients. This one is courtesy of https://www.theginkin.com/2018/11/23/make-your-own-creme-de-violette-recipe/.
350 ml vodka
70 ml cognac (brandy can be substituted, but having the leftover cognac is a plus)
150 grams violet pastilles
25 grams sugar
7 drops blue, 5 drops red food coloring (doesn’t that make purple?)
Mix the two alcohols and the violet flowers in a large, open mouth jar, such as a Mason jar. Seal tightly, let sit for 24 hours, shaking occasionally to let the ingredients blend. Words of warning here – don’t use African violet flowers, as they are not edible. Don’t use violet flowers that have been treated with pesticides; they should be designated as safe for eating. Don’t use violet flowers that your dog has been watering for you. Now be patient.
After the 24 hours are up, add the sugar and food coloring to the mixture. Mix well. You now have Crème de Violette. You can drink it as is, or try any of the cocktails noted above.
So, now you know all about the history of Crème de Violette. You have a description of the flavor and aroma of the liqueur, which should give you the incentive to try it yourself. You can purchase it, or make it yourself. There are almost a dozen cocktail variations to try. Maybe even in a Depression area cocktail glass. I see a very pleasant weekend in your future.