The story of how Crème Yvette, the darling liqueur of the cocktail set, was lost and then resurrected may be familiar to you. The violet-hued concoction was out of production from the late 1960’s until 2009, when demand among bartenders and cocktail experts looking to recreate drinks from early 20th Century, helped bring it back to life. But where did this sought after liqueur’s recipe come from? Its origins are shrouded in mystery.
The story goes that Rob Cooper, a young member of the cordial business Charles Jacquin et Cie family, founded Cooper Spirits Company in 2006. He hit it out of the park with St-Germain, the elderflower-based liqueur which was released starting in 2007 (and later sold to Bacardi, in 2013). After registering a variety of trademarks, including the colorfully named Longcock’s, Rhinochaser, and Bomberger’s Vim and Vigour, he is said to have dug out the old recipe for Crème Yvette from his family’s records, taste-tested it against archive bottles and after assembling new ingredient sources, started production in France, releasing it to grateful mixologists the world over.
So what’s in this romantic beverage? A blend of dried Provencal violets, strawberry, blackberry, raspberry, and blackcurrant, along with honey, and orange peel; it’s sweet with a purple-flower finish. The new formulation does not attempt to replicate the artificial blue-purple color that inspired sky era cocktails such as the Aviation and Stratosphere, instead achieving more of a raspberry tinged shade in the glass. Packaged in a heavy bell-bottomed bottle, the belle epoque gold and purple branding is based on an earlier design, with a seal on the neck letting us know it’s the L’original Circa 1890.
Charles Jacquin et Cie (known for bringing the raspberry liqueur Chambord to the market – in another successful example of an old recipe with an element of historical romance brought to life – they sold the brand to Brown-Foreman in 2006) had bought the rights to Yvette back in the 1930’s from the Sheffield Company (some sources say early-1900’s). Sheffield were based in New London, Connecticut, and had been making their version since the late 19th Century. An antique bottle of Sheffield’s version seen listed on eBay, proudly proclaims this ‘Cordial Delicieux’ is produced in the U.S.A.
Know who else by the name of Sheffield was operating in the town of New London back in the late 1800’s? Strangely enough, the inventor of toothpaste, then marketed as ‘Creme Angelique’: chemist, dentist and entrepreneur, Dr. Washington Sheffield.
In 1852, the 25 year old Washington moved to New London, a whaling port about 122 miles from New York city, eventually setting up a practice as a respected dental surgeon. He created a minty mouthwash for his patients he named “Sheffield’s Elixir Balm”, and later a creamy toothpaste, a vast improvement over the day’s dental powders.
His son Lucius, born in 1854, would go on to attend Harvard for dentistry, after which he travelled to Paris for a year in 1879. Upon Lucius’ return, they worked to set up a large laboratory in New London, and put the idea to package their toothpaste in a tube into action. Lucius had seen Parisian artists armed with collapsible tin paint tubes, and inspired, thought it an ideal way to sell his father’s invention – much better than a jar or bottle. While Lucius was in Paris, did he also taste some of the famous French fruit or violet liqueurs, or even bring some back home with him?
By 1881, father and son had created a hydraulic toothpaste-tube filling machine, and were advertising Creme Angelique for sale at a cost of $0.25 per tube. In the March 8, 1882 edition of the New London Evening Telegram, an intrepid reporter recounts sneaking into the Sheffield lab, to see 18 women busily filling orders bound for New York, Boston, and San Francisco – the Sheffield’s toothpaste was a bestseller.
The Sheffield Dentifrice Co. set up a New York office, and also conceived the International Tooth Crown Company, holding worldwide patents for crowns, dentures, and bridges which brought in lucrative royalties. Lucius later started the New England Collapsible Tube Co., one of the first such manufacturers in America.
Is it a stretch to imagine these entrepreneurial men had a side business dabbling in liqueurs?
They had experience with alcohol, used in making mouthwash. Lucius had been to France, and shown himself to be a creative adapter of ideas. They held many patents which they licensed out. They had access to a large lab stocked with chemistry equipment. Their toothpaste held the evocative French name Creme Angelique, often using the accent circumflex rather than the correct accent graves on the label (circumflex is seen on the Sheffield’s and early Jacquin Creme Yvette branding, accent graves on the modern Yvette). Lucius passed away in 1901, about the right time for rights to be sold off to Charles Jacquin et Cie.
Ingredients for Creme Angelique can be found in Washington’s 1878 notebook, and include carmine red, fragrant orris root, fennel, mint, myrrh, along with sweet simple syrup, and cinchona (also known as quinine bark). It’s easy to imagine Washington the chemist as culinary artist, and perhaps not a stretch to wonder whether he and his son were also the authors of the recipe for what would later become known as Creme Yvette. The missing link is any concrete record of setting up the Sheffield Company referenced on early Creme Yvette bottles, a mystery that perhaps time will solve.
In the meantime, the world can look forward to the next Cooper Spirits Company creation from Rob Cooper, who shows much of the same creativity and entrepreneurialism as the Sheffields.
The Stratosphere– From Lucius Beebe’s The Stork Club Bar Book (1946)
Glass of Champagne
¾ oz. Crème Yvette
Serve in champagne glass. Add a few dashes of Crème Yvette to champagne until purple colored. Add two pieces of clove and serve very cold.
The Aviation – From Hugo Ensslin’s Recipes for Mixed Drinks (1916)
1½ oz. gin
¾ oz. lemon juice
2 dashes maraschino liqueur
2 dashes Crème de Violette (ED: or Crème Yvette)