Finding delicious, balanced fruit liqueurs can be a tricky business. After several unfortunate encounters with cloying bargain-priced brands in my early days of drinking, I have largely ignored that shelf at the liquor store. Until, that is, I discovered crème de cassis. Unlike other fruity, sugary liqueurs, cassis is captivating. It offers an exotic depth of flavor and an intriguing contrast between lush fruit and puckering acidity. These days, you'll spot crème de cassis at your best local cocktail bar, and it should be on your home liquor shelf, too.
The liqueur tastes unfamiliar and interesting mostly because it's made with a small berry that isn't found abundantly in America. When I first tasted black currant, I was overseas in England. Sipping on a tangy soda from popular brand Ribena, I knew instantly I was hooked. The soda had a dark crimson hue, and the flavor was shockingly foreign and exciting; an uneasy balance between tart and bitter, sweet and dry, dripping with rich fruit.
Since then, I've searched high and low for black currants, and have been curious as to why the flavor never caught on with as much fervor in the States as it has in places like France and England. Turns out, the reason for fruit's obscurity here is because commercial cultivation is tightly regulated, as black currant sometimes carries a fungus that is detrimental to pine trees, thus threatening the timber industry. The regulations, put into place at the federal level in the early 1900s, have since been lifted in several states, allowing the once-forbidden fruits to grow in places including Oregon, New York, Vermont, and Massachusetts.
Yet you still don't see black currant spreading like wildfire. Perhaps because at its core, it's a flavor that's not as familiar to Americans as other fruits. Black currant has an astringent sharpness similar to cranberry that can be off-putting to some, meaning its uses and widespread appeal are limited. Personally, I tend to favor drinks that lean towards the sharp, bitter end of the liquid spectrum, so you can imagine my delight in discovering that black currant is available—just hiding in the obscure world of fruit liqueurs under the guise of cassis or crème de cassis. Here are some of the best brands that can be found at your local store, and how to drink them.
How to Drink It
If you like big-bodied red wines with plenty of tannin, rich bittersweet amari, or herbal and lush vermouths, black currant might be the right liqueur for you, too. If these descriptors sound appealing, try getting to know it on a few cubes of ice to quench the need for a light pre-dinner appetite stimulant.
Cocktail-wise, let's get the obvious out of the way immediately: yes, cassis is known for its role in the celebrated Kir and Kir Royale cocktails, and those drinks are pretty much its dominant use in both Europe and the States. There's no denying that the black currant flavor plays well with both white wine and Champagne, but with such a pungent, perky identity, it's a shame to relegate cassis to these drinks alone.
The liqueur works exceptionally well in an array of aperitif drinks and highballs like the Pompier cocktail, made with dry vermouth and club soda. It also shines in the classic Diablo, where it brings sweetness to spicy ginger ale (or ginger beer, if you like that ginger punch) and helps round out earthy, herbal tequila.
If the cassis you've purchased is well-balanced—not heavily tart or extra sweet—you can simply serve it with soda and a lemon twist. Adding a heavy spritz of lime draws out the cranberry-like tartness in the fruit—if you like sour drinks and are tired of the standard offerings, this is a must try.
In Europe, cassis is often used as a sweet kick in a creamy Guinness or to perk up a dry cider, and the berry liqueur also opens up and lengthens aged spirits as well. Thanks to its inherently opulent texture, it pairs well with sweet vermouth and the vanilla and oak characters of a fine bourbon in a riff on the Manhattan cocktail. Try adding a quarter ounce or half ounce to your normal recipe for a dash of added complexity.
Since creme de cassis is somewhat obscure, you'll be lucky to find more than two or three brands at your local store—for a good-quality liqueur, expect to spend around $30 for 750 mL. Any of the recommendations below are worth checking out. The main differences between these brands are that some focus more on a syrupy sugar personality while others lean towards the tartness and acidity from the fruit instead. Read on to discover which might best suit your taste.
Briottet Crème de Cassis This classic cassis ($30 for 750mL) makes a friendly introduction to the category for the uninitiated. The French company has been making black currant liqueur for over six generations using a single variety of cassis, the aromatic Noir de Bourgogne, sourced from three regions in the country. It has a soft fruit personality with hints of tobacco and very little acidity. Briottet shines best when paired with a dry Champagne in the classic Kir Royale.
Giffard Cassis Noir de Bourgogne Many cassis producers will shy away from the raspberry comparison, as the black currant is very different flavor-wise, but the Giffard Cassis Noir de Bourgogne ($29.99 for 750mL) tastes the closest to that end of the red berry spectrum with a thick sweetness and lavender-like finish. It's one of the higher-proof of the bunch, hitting the 20 percent ABV mark, with vegetal notes emerging when diluted with soda.
Lejay Crème de Cassis This French product is one of the newest on the American market, though its origins go back to 1841. Lejay Crème de Cassis ($29.99 for 750mL) includes cassis buds in the recipe in addition to the fruit itself, which adds a subtle layer of floral interest. At 18 percent ABV, it walks a fine line between zesty grapefruit-like citrus and dark rose flavors, and tastes great mixed with tequila, lime, and ginger beer, or on the rocks with soda water.
Clear Creek Cassis Liqueur One of the only American-made cassis products on the market, the Clear Creek liqueur ($22 for 375mL) is a big departure from its French counterparts thanks to a focus on the beautiful, zingy nature of the fruit. Piquant Oregon berries shine through the brandy base with a crisp balance that makes it great for sipping on the rocks with a lemon twist.
Mathilde Cassis The Mathilde line of liqueurs from the Cognac Ferrand company includes a Cassis ($16.99 for 375mL, $27.99 for 750mL) that has the thickest, richest sugar flavor of the ones we tasted. Musky fruit like prune, date, and extra-ripe cherry carry through the viscous liqueur, leaving little room for booze at a soft 16 percent ABV. Thanks to its high sugar content, it's a bit too intense to drink solo, but works great as a sweetener in dry cocktails.
Note: All liqueurs provided as tasting samples for review consideration.