Eaten fresh, black currants are tart and herbaceous. They pop with an earthy funk, playing musty and acidic on the tongue. When crushed, macerated in high-proof neutral alcohol and sweetened with sugar, the astringent fruit becomes a rich, deep red liqueur with a languid pour. A specialty of the Burgundy region of France (cassis translates to “black currant” in French), crème de cassis has been produced commercially since 1841.
In the mid-19th century, black currants were also grown in the United States, and producers began making domestic liqueurs from the fruit. But, in 1911, the federal government banned black currants, which carried white pine blister rust, a fungus that infected white pines and presented a threat to the timber industry. By 1966, disease-resistant strains were introduced, and local governments were given the option to lift the ban, though the berry was slow to reclaim its popularity.
In New York, where Rachael Petach uses the fruit to produce her black currant liqueur, C. Cassis, the ban was overturned in 2003. C. Cassis, sweetened with honey and less syrupy than traditional crème de cassis, is closer in style and application to vermouth.
“Our take is a bit of a contemporary approach to the fruit; it’s a little playful,” Ms. Petach said. “It speaks to my palate for things that are just a little less sweet, a little botanical.”
Ms. Petach started experimenting with what would become C. Cassis in 2018, intent on bottling the semi-savory, herbal flavor of the fresh black currants she remembers eating directly off the bush while working in France. “It was almost like when a song gets stuck in your head, it was like that flavor got stuck in my head,” she said. The company began distributing C. Cassis in 2020.
Ms. Petach describes a fresh black currant as a decidedly unfruity fruit. “It has this really bouncy acidity; it’s a little moody and it’s not for everyone,” she said. “But for a lot of people, those qualities of the fruit are so spectacular and so unique that it’s fun to bring them to the forefront.”
The classic liqueur is best known for its part in the kir, a 19th-century French aperitif which combines dry white wine with crème de cassis, and the kir’s bubbly offshoot, the kir royale, which swaps in sparkling wine for still. It is also measured into the El Diablo, a spicy-sweet combination of tequila, fresh lime, crème de cassis and ginger beer. Stirred into a split of bourbon and rye, the liqueur helps create a contemporary, brambly take on a manhattan. You can also pour a cassis-inflected spritz by combining it over ice with sparkling wine and soda water, or serve it alongside dry vermouth in a Vermouth Royale.
Or take a bottle entirely out of the bar and into the kitchen. Ms. Petach drizzles crème de cassis over ice cream or tosses fresh fruit in it in lieu of sugar.
If you’re looking to add a classic bottle of the liqueur to your bar, look for those labeled either Crème de Cassis de Dijon (made with black currants grown solely in Dijon, France) or Cassis de Bourgogne, which employs berries grown in the greater Burgundy region. Then, measure it into your next drink to infuse it with a royal hue and a concentrated hit of sweet-acidic fruit. But pour judiciously: As Ms. Petach notes, a little goes a long way.
Recipes: El Diablo | Cassis Manhattan
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