There’s a shop near my house where I spend a lot of time drooling. The lovely Omnivore Books is dedicated to rare old interesting books, all about food and drink. From between its countless yellowed pages, the call of kitchens and bars from time past has proven impossible to ignore, and as a result, I've found myself slowly building my own antique culinary library.
Thumbing through my latest acquisition, the Old Mr. Boston De Luxe Official Bartender's Guide (sixth edition, printed in November 1946), I noticed something peculiar. The index of drinks starts off as expected, divided by type of spirit, beginning with the usual suspects like dry gin, rye, bourbon, rum, our friend Curacao, and a cast of others. But then there’s an unknown called Crème de Yvette. Who is this Yvette? Judging from her long list of tributary cocktails, she was a main player in the 1940s bar lineup, but she hasn’t graced the shelf of any liquor store I’ve ever seen. Bargoers from just a few decades ago appear to have been familiar with blue-tinged options like the Ping Pong, Crystal Slipper, or the Atty, but I’m left with nothing but wonder. And so began the research.
Crème Yvette (the 'de' apparently just a way to differentiate from the trademarked name) was a classier gal than the typical 'Crème de blank' crowd, so oft-maligned for being flavored alcoholic filler compared to the authentic heavyweights in the brown liquor department. It was a delicate violet-flavored liqueur, and from available reports, had vague hints of vanilla and citrus. Although based upon brandy-based violet liqueurs found in Europe, the Crème Yvette in these recipes was an authentically and peculiarly American invention.
But in the late 1960s, American drinking tastes were changing dramatically. Prepackaged mixers and simple sour-style recipes were all the rage, and the liquor market was still being violently assaulted by the juggernaut called Vodka. From a mere 40,000 cases sold in the entire country in 1950, vodka struck 4.5 million in 1955. Quickly it outsold gin, and by 1976, it would achieve the unthinkable, eclipsing whiskey itself. Vodka was a foreign beverage, but a sign of things to come; flavorlessness had become a virtue, and for old-school barmen, pigs may as well have sprouted wings. In this kind of revolutionary storm, poor little Yvette didn’t stand a chance, and in 1969, she was discontinued.
Your local fancy-pants bar today may be mixing up an Aviation, a cocktail dating from 1916 and named in the era's spirit of fascination with all things airborne. This one is a mix of gin, lemon juice, maraschino liqueur and Crème Yvette, and while still relatively obscure, is the most likely place where our protagonist’s absence is made noticeable today. Between 1969 and just a short while ago, your bartender would need to be enormously resourceful to avoid being stumped. With no Crème Yvette today, your bartender can at least reach for a replacement, likely in the form of Haus Alpenz’s recent addition, Rothman and Winter’s Crème de Violette, made with great care in Austria. And let’s give Alpenz credit; they’re keeping up the good work by bringing quality obscure spirits to the masses. But this still isn’t the real deal. This point was driven home all the more when I was told by a member of staff at San Francisco’s Clock Bar this weekend that too much Crème de Violette makes an Aviation taste ‘soapy’. Soapy? Surely Mr Boston wouldn’t write love letters to a sip of anything soapy.
But here’s where the story takes a fortuitous turn. It seems the professional boozewielder community has also taken notice of this absence too, to such a degree that the original distillers of our darling Yvette, Charles Jacquin et Cie, under the leadership of heir and St-Germain creator Robert Cooper, have elected to resurrect the original. Samples, carefully calibrated to match samples from existing bottles in the company archives, have cropped up in spirits industry tastings, and reportedly, it’s already on shelves in New York.
Until now, pages upon pages in my book were as relevant to me as recipes for dodo bird, but there is now a bright glimmer of hope. I gave a quick call to the friendly folks at Cask here in San Francisco and learned that no, it’s not “really available” yet, but that they share my eagerness to see Crème Yvette arrive. So for now, with my name on a list and an open history book at the ready, I’m waiting for Yvette to return.