What is Cassis? It is a town located just east of Marseille in Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur. As a tourist destination it is known for falaises (cliffs) and its many sheltered inlets. Wine lovers know it for its full bodied, herby white wines produced from Clairette, and Marsanne as well as Doucillon Blanc primarily. It is also famous for its rose wines, but on this it is overshadowed by its neighbor to the east, Bandol.
Say cassis to others and immediately Creme de Cassis comes to mind. To most it is a sickly sweet, thick deep purple syrup that it only made to mix with champagne for the famous “Kir Royale”. Even the Kir Royale does not have a wonderful reputation. It is thought to be the drink of old ladies at Sunday brunches. What a tragedy this is. Most of us know only of the imitators, the impostors of the most versatile of liqueurs. If you are lucky enough to take a trip to France and happen to wander into the Dijon region (yes that Dijon) you will encounter the real thing, Creme de Cassis de Dijon. Yes it is inky black, and tasting of black currants. Having the “de Dijon” on the label you know that it is the real thing. It is made from actual macerated berries, not flavourings. The currants (cassis) will have been grown only in the commune of Dijon. They are picked and promptly put in alcohol to macerate for 3 months, sugar is added and perhaps some water. That is it. The difference is unbelievable. It is nicely balanced with sweetness and tartness and in the end has an alcohol content of about 20%, somewhere around that of a fine port wine.
How did the drink get its name you ask? Whether you drink a Kir (mixed with a crisp white wine - try a Bourgogne Aligoté ) or a Kir Royale (mixed with champagne), it is named after Canon Felix Kir a World War II hero and later on the Mayor of Dijon. He became mayor in 1945 and would serve what was then known as “Blanc Cassis” to all visiting dignitaries. The drink soon became popular with the natives, then nationally and eventually became the international “in drink”. By the time it was an international hit, it had been renamed for Mayor Kir.
There are two picks for the best in my book.
Briottet, a company run by the Briotet family in Dijon since 1836; the best from Briottet is “Creme de cassis de Dimon 15% vol “DIJONA 15 Special Bar” made with a very high percentage of fruit.
Gabriel Boudier Creme de Cassis de Dijon founded in 1874.
Try one of these two on their own to learn what the authentic thing tastes like. You will not be left with the feeling of a gooey mouth full of sugar.
A couple of classic cocktails come to mind such as:
The Diablo: 3 parts tequila, 1 part creme de cassis and ginger beer (not ginger ale)
Pink Lady: 2 parts creme de cassis, 1 part white rum, 1 part lemon juice, splash OJ
Ballet Russe: 2 parts vodka, 1/2 part creme de cassis, 3-4 dashes lime. Shake with ice; serve in martini glass
Creme de cassis makes food special. Try adding it to a cheese cake. Drizzle it on ripe fruit or vanilla ice cream. It makes sauces for game, and makes lamb with fresh berries even more vibrant. Pair a bit of cassis with a creamy cheese plate.
As the weather warms up and you find yourself sitting out on your patios, at an outdoor cafe or spending a day out on the water, do yourself a favour: take the time to find a bottle of Bourgogne Aligoté and a true Creme de Cassis; your taste buds will thank you.
Remember to experiment. As always be responsible when you are drinking.