Many of us think of crème de cacao as the bottle that collects dust in the far back corner of our grandmother’s liquor cabinet—a relic of a bygone bar cart, a veteran of the bottom shelf.
It’s true that it’s certainly seen better times: The crème de cacaos of the mid-19th century were meant to be consumed on their own, and despite their sweetness (their sugary viscosity, not the addition of dairy, is what earned them the “crème” moniker), balance was paramount.
“Back then, if you couldn’t drink a spirit on its own, it didn’t exist,” says John Troia of Tempus Fugit Spirits, a crème producer leading the charge in making liqueurs, like crème de menthe and crème de violette, that are true to their original blueprints.
But as 20th-century cocktail culture swaggered in, the spotlight shifted to base spirits (whiskey, gin, etc.) and liqueurs went from stand-alone sippers to mere mixers. Thus, producers of liqueurs like crème allowed standards to wane—favoring higher levels sugar over nuance and relying on artificial coloring and oil extracts instead of actual cacao.
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“Crème de cacao needed only to taste vaguely of chocolate,” say Troia. “Nothing more.”
Viscous like a batch of triple-strength simple syrup and just as sweet, the crème de cacaos of the 20th century barreled toward dessert territory and didn’t look back. And unless the date on your arm ordered a Grasshopper at a bar during the disco days, there wasn’t a compelling reason to be in its company. To the back of the liquor cabinet, and to the bottom shelves it went. Until now.
Much like one-piece rompers, crème de cacao was only momentarily derailed, taking a wrong turn before making its way back onto menus and into cocktails you’d actually want to drink. New York City’s Nitecap serves a Brandy Alexander, and a good one; thanks to Clyde Common, the Grasshopper your date ordered in the ’70s is back, and drinkable; and the Golden Cadillac, a rousing mix of cream, crème de cacao and Galliano, is not only seeing a revival, it has a New York City bar named in its honor.
Ten years ago, crème de cacao was getting an ironic wink. Now it’s getting a full-on nod, its resurgence spurred partly by a renewed interest in an era (the 1970s) of cocktailing long derided as the dark age of drinking.
Those interested in playing with ingredients like crème de cacao and crème de menthe can turn to producers like Tempus Fugit for more nuanced takes on each, but, increasingly, many bars—like Betony in New York City and Teardrop Lounge in Portland, Oregon—are making their own.
It’s unsurprising, perhaps, in a world that smiles on doing things with our own two hands. We no longer bat an eye at friends who nurse their sourdough starters or kombucha mothers, or at boyfriends who brew their own beer. But making liqueurs in-house favors pragmatism, and above all, quality over craft: “I don’t look at my grandmother’s liquor cabinet and say I need to do all of this myself,” says Eamon Rockey of Betony. “I look at her liquor cabinet and say: ‘What could I make better?’”
The crème de cacao at Betony tastes like sipping the best piece of chocolate you’ve ever had. It’s pleasantly thick—swirl the glass and it’ll leave an oily film in its wake—and has a sweetness that doesn’t demand your full attention. Take another sip, and it’ll step aside to let the bitter cacao come through.
By making in-house crème de cacaos this good, bars are dragging the bygone liqueur back from the dead. And, perhaps more importantly, they’re changing what it means to order a chocolate martini.