First commercially produced in 1841, it’s no accident that the blackcurrant liqueur, cassis, is most widely known for its role in the famous, 19th-century French aperitif cocktail, the Kir—a mix of white wine and cassis originally known as vin blanc cassis—and its sparkling sibling, the Kir Royale. But the popularity of these two drinks, by most accounts, might have done more to hurt the liqueur’s image than help it.
The Kir was deliberately promoted in France by Canon Félix Kir, the deputy mayor of Dijon, as a means to market inferior vintages of aligoté wine from his home region of Burgundy—also the ancestral home of cassis. “Mayor Kir was trying to unload two things nobody wanted—acidic wine and a sweet liqueur,” explains wine writer Richard Nalley, adding that the liqueur’s “sweet-sour taste” greatly appealed to the European palate and, before long, the American one, too.
As cassis’s popularity grew in the U.S. and producers began making domestic blackcurrant liqueurs, disaster struck: In the early 20th century, blackcurrants, known to carry a disease called white pine blister rust, came to be considered such a threat to the nation’s timber crops that they were outlawed for more than half a century. Producers turned to cheap, artificial sweeteners in lieu of fresh fruit, damaging the spirit’s reputation in the process.
But the influx of quality cassis in the U.S. in recent years has brought the liqueur out of obscurity and helped it find its way back onto drinks lists nationwide. When made with real currants, Bill Norris of 400 Rabbits notes, cassis possesses an “inherent balance from the natural tart and bitter flavors” that makes it a reliable modifier for cocktails both classic and original.
His El Diablo Pepino, a twist on the cassis-inflected El Diablo cocktail, uses cucumber to add an earthy freshness to the fruit-forward drink. Bobby Heugel also takes on a classic, the Tequila Sunrise—known commonly as a mix of orange juice, tequila and grenadine—but subs out some of the grenadine in favor of cassis, and loses the orange juice altogether, in a nod to the original juice-free cocktail which gained popularity as a border beverage in the early 20th century.
“Cassis was likely used [in the original Tequila Sunrise], as it was in many cocktails at time,” explains Huegel. “The tart elements of the cassis berries produce a very balanced liqueur that . . . doesn’t overly sweeten drinks as so many other liqueurs do.”
Will Elliott of Maison Premiere agrees, saying that cassis’s acidity and notes of spice often shine when blended with absinthe: “This really plays into a funky, herbal complexity,” he says. Those herbal flavors come together, too, when mixed with rosebuds, sloe gin and mint in his Rosetti, built in a julep tin over crushed ice.
A less conventional take is François Vera’s Le Papillon, an ambrosial amalgam of citrus, cassis and singani, served at LA’s Parisian-style Pour Vous. And while one might not think to pair the Bolivian spirit with one made famous in Burgundy, the inclusion of muddled grapes alongside the grape brandy suggests a nod to the original wine-based Kir, a genial gesture from one French institution to another.