Arsenic and Old Lace

This cocktail’s origins date back to at least 1916, when it first appeared in Hugo Ensslin’s Recipes for Mixed Drinks as the “Attention.” As you can see, the original specifications called for equal parts each “French vermouth” (most likely a dry, or “white” vermouth), “gin” (no type specified, but most likely a London dry gin), absinthe (probably the most common “green” absinthe), and crème de violette, a sweet, violet-infused liqueur which was popular at the time. Crème de violette also features prominently in another Hugo Ensslin creation of the same period called the “Aviation” (originally equal parts gin, maraschino liqueur, crème de violette, and lemon juice). It is likely that the Attention or its predecessor was probably created sometime before 1916 though, as absinthe was banned in the United States in 1912 and France followed suit a few years later in 1914. If you’re the type of person who likes to “drink your history”–or you’re just curious–here’s the original recipe:

The “Attention” as it first appeared in Hugo Ensslin’s 1916 “Recipes for Mixed Drinks.” Ensslin’s book was New York’s last published bartending guide before Prohibition in 1920.

Over time, the “Attention” became known as the “Atty,” and then sometime after the 1944 release of Frank Capra’s Arsenic and Old Lace, the cocktail adopted the name of the Cary Grant hit. It’s unclear exactly why or when the name change happened- perhaps the original recipe’s absinthe is supposed to be the titular “Arsenic” and the crème de violette is the “Old Lace,” but your guess is good as mine. As classic film buffs and theater-goers may recall, in Arsenic and Old Lace, Mortimer Brewster’s aunts Martha and Abby used elderberry wine- among other things- to create their signature “cocktail” (which is in no way related to the Attention, and should not be consumed by anyone, ever, for what should be fairly obvious reasons).

Excerpt from the 1944 film script of “Arsenic and Old Lace” (adapted from the original 1939 stage version by American playwright Joseph Kesselring)

The nineteen-teens’ obsession with equal parts cocktails aside, modern palates have tweaked Ensslin’s garish recipe several times- the only constant over the last century is gin in some quantities, prepared with absinthe, vermouth, and crème de violette. In my research, I’ve also run across a few vintage recipes which use pastis or other similarly flavored substitutions- these drinks look like they were probably cobbled together during the time period when absinthe was banned. However, I’ve found the more modern updates of this drink which have appeared after the absinthe ban’s repeal to be much more quaff-able, thanks to creative mixologists, the craft cocktail trend, and the revival of vintage cocktail ingredients like crème de violette.

The following recipe comes from famed New York absinthe bar Maison Premiere, and features pronounced flavors of anise and fennel, with an ephemeral opalescence thanks to a generous pour of absinthe. The crème de violette imparts a silvery blue tint and subtle sweetness to the drink. Serve as a digestif, or as a spooky and sophisticated themed cocktail at your next Halloween soirée.


  • 3/4 oz. dry gin (preferably a floral contemporary-style gin, such as: Nolet Silver or The Botanist)
  • 3/4 oz. absinthe (Vom Fas or Pernod recommended)
  • 1/2 oz. crème de violette (such as Giffard, which has a deep violet hue with hints of maroon)
  • 1/4 oz. dry vermouth (preferably Dolin)


  1. In mixing glass over ice, add gin, absinthe, vermouth, crème de violette. Stir until cold- about fifteen seconds.
  2. Strain into a chilled martini or coupe glass and serve. Garnish with a lemon twist, if desired.

Variation: Arsenic and Old Lace #2 (“Just a Pinch of Cyanide”)

If you aren’t an absinthe afficionado, you can adjust the proportions of the cocktail to more closely resemble a martini. Although the color will be the same, the drink won’t have that same magical opalescence that makes it special. If you can handle just a bit more absinthe, finish the drink with a small float of the green fairy (in lieu of the absinthe rinse). The cocktail will gradually become more opalescent as the absinthe louches into the ice-cold cocktail, giving you the same visual effect with less of the pronounced “licorice” flavor.


  • 1¾ oz. gin
  • 3/4 oz. dry vermouth
  • ½ oz. crème de violette
  • rinse of absinthe (~ ⅛ oz.)
  • 2 dashes of orange bitters (such as Angostura Orange Bitters)


  1. Drop absinthe into the bowl of coupe glass. Turn glass so that the absinthe evenly covers the inside. Pour out any excess.
  2. In mixing glass over ice, add gin, vermouth, crème de violette, and bitters. Stir for about fifteen seconds. Strain into coupe glass. Garnish with a lemon twist, if desired.

Bartender’s Note:

If you can’t find crème de violette, you could substitute its American cousin Crème Yvette, which is made with parma violets and is comparable in color.  Crème Yvette is perhaps a bit more maroon though, due to the addition of blackberries, red raspberries, wild strawberries, and cassis, and flavor notes of honey, orange peel, and vanilla. You could also possibly substitute Parfait d’Amour, which is also purple in color (usually from an artificially colored blue Curaçao base), but your finished drink might is going to smell and taste quite different, as Parfait d’Amour is known for its strong scent (Guardian writer John Wright describes it as “a potent compound” which “tasted like the perfume counter at Boots”). Parfait d’Amour can also vary widely in flavor profile- some versions (such as those made by Bols and Marie Brizard) are made with rose petals, vanilla, and almonds, while other manufacturers, such as DeKuyper, use a blend of violets, lemon, and coriander.

If you can’t find a good violet liqueur that you like, or you just don’t care for the sweet stuff to begin with, it might be worth your while to track down a bottle of Empress 1908 Gin, which has a distinctive natural indigo hue thanks to the addition of butterfly pea blossom in its botanicals.