Know Your Cocktails: Crème de Cassis And How To Use It
Kir. Executive Sunrise. El Diablo. Don’t worry if you’re not familiar with these cocktails. You’d have to be a serious cocktail nerd to know all three. It’s time to change that though — let’s talk about Crème de Cassis, a key ingredient needed to create each of these drinks.
Crème de cassis is a French liqueur that is made of black currants. These small, vibrant berries aren’t prevalent in the United States but are beloved in Europe. Many are grown in the Burgundy region of France and have a strong tart flavor. The black currants are macerated to make the liqueur but the additional sugar serves more to draw out the juice and give the result a big, round mouthfeel rather than to make it cloyingly sweet.
So why aren’t Americans familiar with crème de cassis? In the early 1900’s, Americans actually grew thousands of acres of black currants. It was discovered that the berry spread a European fungus called blister rust that killed white pine trees. Since these pines were the backbone of the timber industry, the United States government banned black currants.
Europe wasn’t immune to the fungus, but didn’t grow nearly as many white pine trees, so the damage was limited. Today, over 99-percent of all currants are grown in Europe. The United States lifted the ban in 1966 but states didn’t begin growing the berry for another 40 years.
There are more than a few crème de cassis producers today. One, Gabriel Boudier, was recently showcased at a pairing dinner at Maison Pucha Bistro. We were invited to attend and learn more about the liqueur. Gabriel Boudier is the last family-owned cassis house in Dijon and owner Yves Battault was in attendance to share its history. Black currants grown in Dijon like Gabriel Boudier’s are regarded as being of higher quality — a fact that Battault proudly stated throughout the dinner.
Crème de cassis can be used in many different ways. It’s commonly served before a meal or snack as an apéritif. The most common cassis cocktail is the Kir. The Kir is simply a half-ounce of crème de cassis with a glass of dry white wine. Pour the crème de cassis in first, top with wine, and sip away on a blisteringly hot Texas day. The Kir Royale is a common riff of the cocktail, simply substituting Champagne for the white wine. (Mix with red wine and the result is the Cardinal. It’s sort of a juice-less, cheater sangria in that it’s a great way to sweeten and temper dry or tannic wine.)
Another popular cassis cocktail is the Executive Sunrise — a riff on the Tequila Sunrise. Add an one-and-a-half ounces gold tequila and four ounces of fresh-squeezed orange juice to an ice-filled glass then pour a half ounce of crème de cassis on top. The cassis will sink to the bottom and create the “sunrise” effect.
The fruit-forward flavor of crème de cassis deserves more than a simple cocktail, and Maison Pucha’s beverage director Julia Tillman didn’t disappoint. Her ‘Le Diable’ cocktail, a variation on the El Diablo, added blood orange juice to the traditional combination of tequila, lime juice, crème de cassis and ginger beer. The glass was rimmed in Himalayan sea salt. The fresh citrus stole the show (and nixed any tequila “harshness”). Tillman also showcased other Gabriel Boudier products such as crème de pêche and saffron-infused gin.
Executive chef Manuel Pucha also added the crème de cassis to his dishes, with a standout being Peking Duck with cassis jus. Pucha also used the crème de pêche in a truly delectable caviar sous-vide egg.
For those on a quest to acquire a bottle of crème de cassis: since it’s not the most in-demand product, you might be out of luck finding one of great quality (or any at all) in small liquor stores. Instead, visit well-regarded stores with knowledgable staff and varied inventory such as Spec’s, Houston Wine Merchant or Total Wine & More. This deeply flavored liqueur with a fascinating history is an excellent addition to a home bar.
Josh Armendariz is the beer and cocktail writer at Houston Food Finder. He can often be found on a stool at your favorite bar, sipping a hoppy craft beer and talking about the Astros with anyone who’ll lend an ear. Follow him on IG @drinkwithjosh.