Bringing It Back Bar: How to Use Crème de Cacao

Every bar sports marginal bottles that elude even the most seasoned drink-makers. That is, until someone dusts them off and uses them in a new way. In "Bringing It Back Bar," we shine a light on overlooked bottles and devise recipes to take them from back bar to front shelf. Up now: velvety, bittersweet crème de cacao.

Perhaps by virtue of its inextricable link to the often maligned Brandy Alexander, crème de cacao has managed to earn a distinctly sweet and ultimately not-so-serious reputation.  

“The first time I encountered crème de cacao, it was not being used properly,” says Seth Freidus of Boston’s Alden & Harlow. “It was seen in drinks with sweet on sweet on sweet on vodka.”

It wasn’t always this way. Invented in France, it’s likely that crème de cacao was first created in the late 16th century, when monasteries began distilling seed and nut liqueurs. Sipped on its own throughout the 1800s, it didn’t begin appearing as a mixer in drinks until the turn of the century—most famously shaken with equal parts gin and cream in the Alexander, a precursor to the Brandy Alexander, which rose to fame a few decades later.

A heavy-handed drink, the sweet, creamy cocktail garnered popularity during Prohibition, as it could easily mask the taste of the era’s “bathtub gin.” But that’s not to say it was particularly well-received. In 1934, a year after Prohibition was repealed, newly founded men’s magazine Esquire released a list of the ten worst drinks of the past decade—among them, the Alexander. (Grouped in were other so-called “pansies,” whose names, like the Pom Pom and the Fluffy Ruffles, didn’t help their cause.)

One notable exception came a few years later in 1937, when British bartender William J. Tarling developed the Twentieth Century cocktail for the Café Royal in London. Named for the world-famous Twentieth Century Limited rail line, which ran between New York and Chicago, the drink skips cream altogether, balancing crème de cacao with gin, Lillet blanc and lemon juice, a move that modern bartenders agree is still a good way to use the liqueur.

“Crème de cacao definitely has a kitsch factor, which can be good in small doses,” says Henry Prendergast, Beverage Director at Chicago’s Analogue. “I think [it’s] great tempered with something a bit more bitter and austere…where the acid can balance out the richness of the syrup.”

Friedus agrees, adding that it also plays well with herbal components. His spiritous The Hardy Boy combines white crème de cacao with rye, Suze and homemade wormwood and peppermint syrup; Prendergast chooses instead to mix it with gin, stirring it up with Punt e Mes sweet vermouth and fernet for the Sun Stealer.

The Chestnut Club‘s Pablo Moix is fond of the liqueur, too, especially the white version, which the bar uses in the classic bourbon-centric riff on the Twentieth Century, the 19th Century, first created by Brian Miller at New York’s Pegu Club. “White crème de cacao is my cocktail crutch,” says Moix, adding that he also likes to use it in his take on the Improved Whiskey Cocktail: “Lose the maraschino liqueur and replace it with white crème de cacao.”

Which raises the question: white or dark? While both are chocolate-flavored, dark crème de cacao often gets its signature hue from caramel coloring, which some bartenders, Prendergast among them, find to have an artificial taste. But some bartenders have found success with the deeply dark-chocolate-y, not-too-sweet version produced by Tempus Fugit, which does not use any additives. At Canon in Seattle, Jamie Boudreau mixes it with bourbon, lemon and grenadine in the Commodore; he takes it a step further in the Chocolate Salty Bols, a malty drink of Bols genever, crème de cacao, rum and Earl Grey-infused vanilla hemp milk. “The maltiness of the Bols marries perfectly with the cacao, and the vanilla hemp milk rounds everything out,” he explains. Finished with bitters, a spoonful of boba and a pinch of sea salt, it’s a modern, playful retort to the creamy cacao cocktails first shaken up a century ago.