What's the Deal with... Original Crème de Cassis

Alex Van Buren
Food Features Editor
January 17, 2014

You know that thing? That thing you’re hearing about everywhere, but you don’t quite know what it is? And it sounds like something you should already know about, so you don’t really want to ask? Well, we know about it, and we’ll give you the intel. Welcome to What’s the Deal With.

Photo credit: Lejay

Crème de cassis is one of those (often ugly and somewhat sad) bottles you see relegated to the back shelves of liquor stores. Sweet, pungent and typically cloying, it’s most famous for its role in the fizzy, pretty Champagne cocktail Kir Royale, adding a nice reddish tint but very little by way of flavor.

But what we Americans know as crème de cassis is more often than not simply cassis (what we in America call “blackcurrant”) liqueur. And as The New York Times reported, the real deal—fiercely regulated and called crème de cassis de Dijon—is now available stateside for the first time. The difference in taste between cassis and crème de cassis de Dijon is profound, as we learned in an in-house test (tough job, we know).

We spoke to Arnaud Brachet, the American representative for Lejay crème de cassis de Dijon, to find out the history of the spirit, what makes it distinct from blackcurrant liqueurs, and learn more about the origin of the popular Kir Royale. Read on for its history, and more importantly, how it tastes.

Where It Comes From: In 1836, a French gent from Dijon, with the fantastic name Auguste-Denis Lagoute, started his own liquor company. He sometimes went to Paris, about three hours from his home in Burgundy, where he became smitten with a drink called ratafia. It contained red berries, spices, and alcohol, and he considered it “a refreshing sort of drink,” Brachet told us. Lagoute started brainstorming about how to improve it using a fruit from his part of the world. Cassis was ubiquitous, so that’s what he decided to use, and by 1841, he was bottling his own crème de cassis.

How It’s Made: Lagoute macerated blackcurrants in oak vats along with high-proof alcohol and beet sugar, and let gravity do all the work of maceration. Competitors use machines, says Brachet, to crush blackcurrants, but at Lejay the process of maceration still takes eight to ten weeks, since they want to retain “the freshness and original freshness of the fruit.”

Crème de cassis de Dijon, like real-deal Champagne, is a title tightly regulated by the French government, which uses the appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC): the spirit must be produced entirely in Dijon, use a minimum of cassis berries (of which 25 percent must hail from Burgundy) per liter of liqueur, and must use beet sugar, not cane sugar. 

When Cassis and Bubbly Met: All this work might have resulted in a spirit that remained in obscurity had not the Lejay family met Canon Félix Kir, a French Catholic priest, politician, and “very social character,” according to Brachet. Canon Kir was a fan of mixing Lejay’s crème de cassis with white wine and Champagne. It was 1951, after the Second World War, and people were “sort of partying more than usual,” says Brachet. Canon Kir happily granted Lejay the trademark to the names Kir (their spirit mixed with white wine) and Kir Royale (the liqueur mingled with bubbly). 

How It Tastes: And what of the taste? Two to one, our tasting panel found the $18, 375-millileter bottle of Lejay superior to its $21, 750-millileter French competitor, Mathilde Cassis Liqueur.

Lejay is even, in a pinch, sippable on its own, with what one taster called “a jam and pine smell” and a “really gorgeous” ruby-red hue. Another admired its dominant berry flavor, and the fact that it actually smells like berries. The more brown-colored Mathilde, on the other hand, had a distinct overtone of cough syrup.

When mixed with prosecco, the nuanced flavor of the Lejay showed clearly: The bouquet and taste were of stone fruits, making us think this would be lovely mixed with bubbly at a summer picnic with charcuterie. Mathilde was fine, a ho-hum party drink, but nothing impressive.

Our verdict? Lejay is worth the minor splurge, and makes for prettier drinks, to boot.