Today we try one of the simplest cocktails imaginable. It’s just white wine mixed with blackcurrant liqueur. Not only is it delicious but it’s named after a hero of the French resistance. Can’t get better than that.
Kir was big in the 1980s in Britain, and then it just seemed to disappear. People stopped offering it at the fashionable south Bucks drinks parties I was dragged along to as a child. My parents still have some ancient bottles of crème de cassis in the garage gathering dust. I have a theory as to why it went out of fashion: wine got tastier. The kind of stuff my parents would mix with cassis were supermarket Muscadet or discount Chablis. Now Muscadet can be a fine and noble thing, but it can also be thin and highly acidic. Adding blackcurrant liqueur is a great way to perk it up. Then New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc with its wild flavours of gooseberries, passion fruit, and yes, blackcurrants hit the shelves and suddenly the Kir seemed old fashioned.
The story behind the drink
The drink originated in Burgundy. The story goes that this region of France was full of blackcurrants and the wine wasn’t always that ripe so someone had the brilliant idea of combining them. Though in his book The Discovery of France historian Graham Robb has his doubt about whether this is true. He writes: “the Dijon area was not particularly rich in blackcurrants until an enterprising cafe owner made an explanatory trip to Paris in 1841, noted the popularity of cassis and began to market his own liquor as a regional speciality”. So like most traditional drinks, the Kir is not as ancient as the folklore would suggest.
Its name, however, can be precisely dated. A wine and cassis was known as a Blanc de Cassis until the drink was popularised by a French canon called Felix Kir. A famous gourmand and drinker, he achieved fame during the war for his acts of resistance against the Nazi occupation. When the local dignitaries fled in the face of the German army, aged 63, he became de facto leader of the town of Dijon and, in the words of Fergus Butler-Gallie in his book Priests de la Resistance!, “set about making life as difficult as possible for the Nazis.” Kir was involved with gun running, saved the town’s synagogue from destruction by suggesting the Germans use it to store military supplies and, by sheer force of personality, aided the escape of nearly 5,000 prisoners of war by pretending that they were required to help with local construction projects.
Eventually, the Germans cottoned on to Kir’s antics: he was arrested on a couple of occasions, survived an assassination attempt by French fascists, and had to flee. He returned though, riding a tank at the head of the liberating allied army: “Wearing his priest’s cassock, his cloak billowing around him and his beret wedged firmly on his podgy head, Canon Kir made his return to the city from which, a matter of months before, he had only just escaped with his life.” Butler-Gallie writes. He goes on to explain: “When he heard that French were due to roll into Dijon the following morning. Kir . . . quickly arranged to secure a place atop a tank, allowing the photographers, journalists and whoever it is that formulates the annals of local myth and legend to capture him as the liberator of Dijon for posterity.”
How to make a Kir
The blanc de cassis became known as the Kir in honour of this great Frenchman. Kir himself would have drunk his Kir with Aligoté, the second white grape of Burgundy which makes rather neutral wines, but the great thing about the Kir is that you can use pretty much anything: Pinot Grigio, Vinho Verde, unoaked Chardonnay, or Picpoul de Pinet. The only thing is that it mustn’t be sweet, oaky or have too much flavour. You can turn your Kir into a Kir Royale by using sparkling wine, Cremant de Bourgogne would be traditional, but any crisp dry sparkler would do. Prosecco won’t. Tarantino fans can serve it alongside a cheese board to create a Kir Royale with Cheese. You can spritz it up by adding ice, soft fruit like raspberries and a splash of soda water. Other fruit liqueurs work well such as Chambord or sloe gin (though I am not sure Kir would approve).
So, let’s raise a glass to the indomitable spirit of Canon Kir. Vive la France!
Ideally both ingredients should be chilled. Add the cassis to a wine glass, top up with white wine and stir. Garnish with a raspberry if you’re feeling fancy and drink on a warm day in the garden with one of the two books above, both are highly recommended.