I’m standing in the beautiful Burgundy countryside learning about the harvest: how to plant em’, when to pick em’. In the middle of all the rolling farmland are rows of ripening fruits that will soon be made into delicious booze. But I’m not in a vineyard of Pinot Noir or Chardonnay grapes. I’m in the green fields where Lejay Lagoute harvests its blackcurrants to make crème de cassis. A number of questions cross my mind while we examine the woody shrubs. One being, how the hell did we look at all this in Britain and arrive at Ribena?
But the bigger question that sticks out is why, outside of industry types, don’t I hear much about crème de cassis? Do a quick survey of your friends. How many can tell you a) what this sweet, dark red liqueur made from blackcurrants is and b) where it comes from. In an era where provenance, heritage and brand character have never been more important and where demand for liqueurs increases annually, this seems slightly odd. They’ll probably have heard of Dijon mustard, but that’s just a recipe. Crème de cassis is different.
In 2015, the new protected geographical indication (PGI) for ‘Crème de Cassis de Bourgogne’ was approved, guaranteeing its Burgundian origin. If your bottle is labelled ‘Crème de Cassis de Dijon’, then it must contain blackcurrants grown in Dijon, while ‘Cassis de Bourgogne’ can only use currants grown in the greater Burgundy region. The legislation also dictated the minimum quantity of berries used in its production (the variety Noir de Bourgogne is also essential) and that liqueur must have a minimum alcoholic content of 15% ABV and contain at least 400 grams of sugar per litre.
To some it might sound like an archaic drink that lives to gather dust in the corner of a drinks cabinet, its top fused with crystallized sugar and label peeling, only brought out to make some sort of white wine and cassis drink. Fruit liqueurs are as popular as ever but have a mixed reputation thanks to some poorly made versions that are cloyingly sweet and feature bonkers flavours. But crème de cassis deserves your attention, not just for its considerable history, but mostly because each glass smells like a thick, rich compote made from real berries.
For that, you can thank Lejay Lagoute, one of only four producers in the French city of Dijon, Burgundy. It is the original creator of crème de cassis and still makes its signature product according to the original 1841 recipe established by its founder Auguste-Denis Lagoute. “He visited Paris in the 1830s, he discovered a very popular beverage called ‘Ratafia de Neuilly’, a spirit made with some macerations of fruits and spices. He was very inspired by the idea of maceration,” explains Donatien Ferrari (is that not the best name you’ve ever heard?), global brand ambassador for Lejay Lagoute. “He started to macerate some fruits and through his experiments, he made the first crème de cassis. This idea of slow maceration was intended to maximise the potential of the fruit, without any artificial additives. Later on, Henri Lejay married Auguste-Denis’ daughter Elisabeth and the company became officially Lejay Lagoute, so you could say it all started with a love story!”
It’s not surprising that Ferrari enjoys the romance of his brand’s signature product because, while in Dijon, you notice how much of a role crème de cassis plays in this city of medieval churches and Renaissance townhouses. Every menu we peruse has a meal that pairs with it, every bartender has a number of serves in mind for the curious drinker. “In Burgundy, and particularly in Dijon, crème de cassis is a huge part of the social and economic life. We’re very proud of our history,” says Ferrari. “When you welcome your friends or your family at home you always offer them cème de cassis with some gougères (delicious cheese-filled choux pastry) and “jambon persillé” (a marble ham with garlic and herbs). It’s hospitality, you become fat very fast but you are happy!”
All of Lejay’s liqueurs are made only using natural products and for its signature cassis, the brand only uses the Noir de Bourgogne and Black Down varieties of blackcurrant, which are harvested between mid-June and late July. “The cassis (French for blackcurrant) is originally from the foothills of the Himalayas in Tibet. The ‘black pearl’ as we call it in France arrived in Burgundy in the Middle Ages. The biggest producers are Poland and Russia, so it will be very easy for us to buy some cassis directly in those countries. But we wanted to stay 100% French and use only cassis produced in France”, says Ferrari. “The two varietal that we use use very different and very complementary. The Noir de Bourgogne has very high acidity and typical vegetal aromas, while the Black Down is rounder and sweeter. When you blend them you achieve the perfect balance”.
Once the berries are harvested, they are transported to Lejay’s distillery in northern Dijon. It’s a modest-looking building and operation, but it’s where an almost 180-year-old process takes place all the time. “Our process is all about good fruit, time and gravity. We do not need any filtration, it is 100% natural,” says Ferrari. The first part of the Lejay process is static maceration, a unique technique that Auguste-Denis Lagoute established when creating the liqueur. It’s not all that common, as most other liqueurs would macerate berries in revolving vats. “This process is unique because we let the fruits and the alcohol exchange slowly. It is very important to use only neutral alcohol in order to keep only the taste of the fruit,” Ferrari explains. “If you do it too fast using centrifugation, for instance, you will extract some bad tannin and bad aromas. This way we have a more consistent product, with great colour and longer shelf-life”.
This lasts for two months, before its time to extract the flavour and aroma from the berries. “When we open the vats we drain the liquid with an Archimedes’ screw before slowly and gently pressing them with a pneumatic bladder. This extracts the juice and alcohol while ensuring seeds and skins are not crushed. This would mean some undesirable tannins,” Ferrari says. “Then it’s all about gravity. We transfer the spirit to our underground tanks where it rests. This causes sediment to settle at the bottom of the tank and we wait for it to have perfect clarity, which can take up to 12 hours. We then have what we call the ‘vierge melange’, or virgin blend, which we extract carefully to leave the sediment behind”.
Lejay makes a point of not using additives, but it does have a secret weapon of an ingredient: small quantities of blackcurrant buds. “Our magic ingredient! We harvest the buds in January during the cold Burgundian winter. The buds are made only with the Noir de Bourgogne varietal. Then we macerate them for 30 days in neutral alcohol to create a highly concentrated infusion,” Ferrari explains. “Just one drop in each bottle is enough to give a special vegetal aftertaste to our Cassis. It’s a very expensive technique, because when we pick the buds those bushes will not yield fruit and because they can be used to produce very fancy French fragrances instead, so the demand is very high”.
The final part of creating Cassis involves blending it with sugar. Lejay opted to use crystallised sugar instead of liquid sugar because it preserves the rich flavour of the liqueur and adds the desired texture. It really works, providing a natural sweetness that’s not at all cloying. “When it comes to sugar there are a lot of options, but the best in terms of taste and texture is the classic saccharose crystal sugar that you use in your tea and in your coffee,” says Ferrari. “Even though we have some of the best sugar cane in the world in Martinique, we prefer to use the high-quality beetroot sugar that we have here in the north of France”.
Crème de cassis is often consumed as both a digestif or apéritif (an answer to everyone wondering can you drink crème de cassis straight – absolutely, it does very well served simply with ice!), or mixed with white wine or a classic Champagne cassis drink. However, cocktails are where crème de cassis really shines. “Cassis is super versatile. There’s only one rule when making cocktails with cassis, have fun! If you do some tests and replace the vermouth in your Manhattan or sugar in your Old Fashioned with Lejay, you’ll be pleasantly surprised”, says Ferrari “When the sun is out we love a nice Lejay Bicyclette, an old school drink served at Harry’s Bar in Paris. You make it by combining 25ml of Lejay Cassis, 40ml of dry vermouth and ice. Stir this mix then top with Champagne and garnish with a lemon twist. I’d also recommend the Diablo, a classic created by Tiki god Victor Bergeron of Trader Vic’s fame. He combined 30ml of Lejay Cassis, 50ml of good Tequila, 20ml of lime juice and topped it with ginger beer. You can do a twist with it and use mezcal or make your own ginger syrup”.
However, by far the most well-known cassis cocktail is The Kir, a classic serve popularized by French Resistance hero Felix Kir. “In Burgundy, it was the tradition to mix crème de cassis and white wine, especially Aligoté wine. Felix Kir was mayor of Dijon City from 1945 till his death in 1968 and he would make this drink all the time so people started to name the drink after him,” says Ferrari. “He was very close to Lejay so he decided to grant the rights to his name exclusively to us in 1951, which means both the Kir and Kir Royal are registered trademarks. So, if you want to do the original Kir you have to use Lejay. Thank you Canon Kir!”
Lejay is the world leader concerning cassis, producing 8 million bottles per year (that’s not full capacity) and selling in more than 30 markets. Around 80% of those sales going to Japan, who love a bit of cassis in all those Highballs. But it’s clear the brand feels it can do more. “The category is still under the radar in many countries and we can always improve our distribution,” says Ferrari. “We are now part of a family-owned French group called La Martiniquaise. It is a chance for a small brand like Lejay to grow, because La Martiniquaise is a reference in the world of spirits and the brand will benefit from all their expertise”. I’d recommend you give crème de cassis a chance. It’s earned its time in the spotlight.
Nose: Like Ribena but better. Big, thick fresh blackcurrants with outstanding clarity and character. There’s a slight green, vegetal note underneath.
Palate: On the palate, there’s a rush of white sugar sweetness which is accompanied by more blackcurrant, this time slightly tart but very refreshing.
Finish: This note carries over into the finish, which is medium length, sweet and a little tart.