Food & Drink

Everything You Need to Know About Cassis

If you’ve never heard of crème de cassis, you’re not alone.

Made from macerated blackcurrant berries, the intensely tart liqueur has enjoyed moderate fame over the past few years, with more and more distilleries taking a chance on the fruity liqueur, and more and more bartenders incorporating it into cocktails both modern and classic.

“I find cassis to be so much more than other, one-dimensional berry liqueurs,” says Jeffrey Morgenthaler, bar manager of Portland’s Clyde Common, who describes the fruit as tasting like a combination of under-ripe blueberry, ripe raspberry and a little blackberry. “Currants have this earthy, vegetal quality that gives the liqueur a lot of depth and texture.”

Despite its newfound popularity, the liqueur is still fairly obscure in the U.S.—especially outside of craft bartending. And there’s good reason for that.

Cassis’s Rocky Past

First commercially produced in 1841 in Burgundy, France, cassis was an instant hit. Word of the liqueur soon spread from Europe to the United States, where enterprising distillers began growing blackcurrants and producing their own. Soon after the start of the 20th century, however, U.S. production came to a screeching halt. The blackcurrant plant, known to carry white pine blister rust, a fungus that was potentially detrimental to the logging industry, was outlawed in the U.S. in the early 1900s. The liqueur, though still imported from France, faded into obscurity.

It wasn’t until 1966 that regulations lifted when disease-resistant strains of the berry became available, and the federal government gave individual states the option to legalize blackcurrant farming. As luck would have it, there was demand for the liqueur thanks to Canon Felix Kir, a clergyman, hero of the French Resistance, and mayor of Burgundy's capitol Dijon from 1945 to 1968. According to wine writer Richard Nalley, Kir created his popular, eponymous cocktail to promote two of his region’s rather difficult exports: acidic white wine and cassis. While it didn’t rocket Dijon into world power, the cocktail certainly helped reintroduce cassis to the American palate.

Brands to Try

The slow-growing blackcurrant revival has inspired some distillers to attempt their own take on crème de cassis—but with an Americanized twist. Tuthilltown ($24), based in New York’s Hudson Valley, makes its cassis liqueur with locally grown fruit that’s macerated for four months with a neutral grain spirit in whiskey-cured barrels. Oregon’s Clear Creek ($25) also took a chance on blackcurrants grown on a farm near its Portland distillery. After macerating in the distillery’s unaged brandy for months, it’s strained and mellowed with only a little sugar, giving it more of a punch than other cassis liqueurs on the market.

Of course, nothing can quite take the place of the traditional French crème de cassis, made from a maceration of the berries in neutral grain spirit. A number of brands, including musky Mathilde ($17), sweeter Giffard ($30) and well-balanced Gabriel Boudier Dijon ($28) continue to make cassis according to French tradition—without additives or additional coloring (not that the rich, dark color of the fruit requires it).

How to Use Cassis

Along with distillers making the liqueur, bartenders like Morgenthaler are helping drive the trend forward in drinks. In one modern recipe that has received a fair amount of attention—the Bourbon Renewal (bourbon, crème de cassis, lemon juice, gomme syrup)—Morgenthaler uses a touch of cassis to create a complex spin on a Whiskey Sour.

“I usually reach for it first when I want some sort of berry flavor in my cocktail—if I’m not making a syrup or puree, that is,” says Morgenthaler. His go-to brand of cassis is Briottet ($30), made in the liqueur’s birthplace of Dijon.

But the fruit’s tart, tannic and mildly acidic flavor—a departure from more common fruit liqueurs made from blackberries and raspberries—could be what’s holding cassis back from more widespread popularity. Though that depth of flavor lends itself nicely to classics like the Kir and the Kir Royale, which puts sparkling wine to work instead of still white wine, a little cassis goes a long way, and the liqueur should be used judiciously though not timidly.

Even if you choose not to dress it up to the nines with sparkling wine, cassis still shines when mixed simply with soda water or lemonade (an ounce will do), adding just the right amount of complex fruit flavor while avoiding an overly sweet, cloying mess of a drink. You could even pour a little over a bowl of ice cream—it’s a downright delightful accompaniment to chocolate—mix it into a vinaigrette, or use it to flavor whipped cream.

Though a bit intimidating at first, cassis is as versatile as any other fruit or fruit liqueur. If nothing else, it will never be called boring.