A quick rave for Central Liquors: Located at 917 F. St NW, Central Liquors has become my go-to spot for hard to find bottles. The store has limited shelf space, but uses it well to stock a selection of high quality, esoteric items you won’t easily find elsewhere in Washington, DC, and definitely not in the state run liquor stores I’m stuck with in Virginia. I went in a few weeks ago and asked the clerk if they ever carry creme de violette, an obscure liqueur flavored with violet flowers that hasn’t been widely available in the U.S. for decades. “We used to,” he said. “But nobody ever buys it.”
“Will you carry it again?” I asked.
“No, I don’t think so.” And that, I thought, was the end of that. I already had one bottle at home that I’d ordered from England and figured I’d have to carefully ration it until I get my hands on more.
I dropped in again recently to pick up something else. As I was checking out, the guy at the counter asked me if I’d called in a special order, nodding his head toward a lone bottle sitting on a shelf behind the counter. And there it was, creme de violette! He wasn’t the person I’d spoken with before, but apparently I’d bought enough strange bottles there to be recognizable. After making sure it really was mine and not someone else’s special order, I was on my way with a bonus acquisition.
There are some subtle differences between the two creme de violettes. The one I had imported, from Deniset Klainguer, is all sweetness and flower petals. The one I bought in DC, Rothman and Winter, has a little must in the aroma and lower proof. Overall, I like the DK a little better, but they’re both excellent in a mixed drink.
Why does this matter? Because creme de violette is an essential ingredient in one of the greatest cocktails ever made. Walk into any bar in America and ask for an Aviation and you’ll probably get a blank stare from the bartender. Walk into a really good bar and you’ll get one of these:
1.5 oz gin
.5 oz lemon juice
.5 oz maraschino liqueur
That’s a perfectly good cocktail. Anything that starts with gin is on the right track, the lemon is a nice counterpoint, and the unique flavor or maraschino takes this a step above the average drink. (Maraschino deserves a post of its own. Suffice it to say that what passes for maraschino cherries in bars today is a pox upon mixology. Good maraschino liqueur tastes a bit of cherries, but really expresses the nuttiness that comes from the pits. It doesn’t have anything to do with the red-dyed, corn syrup-infused travesties of a cherry you find at the grocery store. Luxardo is considered the best brand. You can get it at Central Liquor too.)
But walk into a great bar and you’ll get something like this:
2 oz gin
.5 oz lemon juice
.5 oz maraschino
.5 oz creme de violette
Now, my friends, you’ve got yourself a drink. It’s got amazing complexity: the botanicals of gin, the tartness of citrus, the nuttiness of maraschino, the floral notes of violet flowers. And the color! It’s a vibrant purple with a hint of gray. The kind of purple cocktail a man would drink. Elegant. Beautiful. Just the way it was made before Prohibition.
If I had to choose one cocktail to drink for the rest of my life, this might be it. And now that I can get a steady supply of this liqueur, that’s pretty much what I’ve been doing this month.