Drinks

It's Time to Reclaim the Kir Royale

July 15, 2016

In high school, I became intimately acquainted with a couple named Mireille and Robert. I knew about their eating, drinking, and personal care habits, their favorite activities, and their families. I learned all this because they were the main characters in French in Action, the textbook and videos my French teacher used to immerse us in the language. Over the course of the videos, Mireille and Robert become somewhat romantically intertwined while teaching such useful things as how to compliment a person’s sweater and the idiomatic phrase mystère et boule de gomme (which translates to "mystery and gumball" and probably hasn’t been in common usage since the '80s).

The most memorable moment of the videos, at least for me, was when Mireille and Robert order kirs to drink at a café. Our teacher paused to explain what a kir is—a mixture of crème de cassis, i.e. black currant liqueur, and white wine—before we continued with the lesson.

One of Mireille, one for Robert. Photo by fiveandspice

A number of years later, I arrived in Paris to study French and art in college. The first evening there, jet-lagged and ravenous, having decided to walk across three-quarters of the city in one day in the name of exploration, my friend Kaitlin and I attempted to go out to dinner, only to discover that the kitchen was not yet prepared to serve dinner at the ungodly early hour of 6 P.M. But the kind staff told us to wait. They would hurry the preparations, and would we like something to drink while we waited? Both of us ordered the only French apéritif we knew of, a kir.

Our drinks were a) delightful, b) made the wait go by in a flash, and c) made us much better at speaking French, between giggles. A couple months later while wandering Avignon, my professor introduced us to the kir royale, a version of the kir made with Champagne. And ever the sucker for sparkling wine, I was hooked.

Since then, I have rarely met anyone who drinks kirs or kir royales, apart from a Swiss friend of mine who loves them. In the past, in the U.S. at least, the kir earned a bit of a bad reputation, and not wholly undeservedly. Originally the kir was the product of early locavorism—it supposedly originated with Félix Kir, a Second World War hero and the mayor of Dijon in Burgundy, France, who invented it to promote two local products: crème de cassis and the white wine Aligoté. However, in the United States it was for a long time nearly impossible to come by high-quality crème de cassis, so instead of the balanced, nuanced flavors of a traditionally-made black currant liqueur, people were exposed to syrupy, medicinal liqueur made with artificial flavors. To make matters worse, bartenders making a kir would reach for any white wine, not necessarily the dry and acidic varietals is should be made with, often rendering the drink intolerably sweet.

Black currants are a common and popular berry for jams and juices in much of Europe. The fruit is especially popular in Scandinavia—growing up, black currant was my favorite flavor of juice by a long shot—but it’s much less common in the U.S. This is because the bushes brought to America carried a disease that threatened the white pine, and therefore the logging industry, so they were banned. The ban has been lifted in a number of states, so you can grown them some places, including near where we are now in Minnesota. So, I go currant picking in the summer with my Finnish friends to make black currant juice, and to make my own black currant liqueur by letting an equal quantity of black currants and vodka sit for two months before straining it and sweetening it to taste with simple syrup.

More: That's not the only liqueur you can make at home. Try it with other fruits (or herbs and spices, to make amari).

But now, high-quality crème de cassis from Dijon is available more widely. And so is plenty of good dry white wine—and, more importantly, dry sparkling wine. I think it’s time to reclaim the kir royale. Aperol spritzes have taken the world by storm, and kir royales have a not entirely dissimilar set of qualities, balancing bitter, sweet, and bubbles, in a low-enough-proof package that having one or two before dinner won’t put you instantly to sleep. Most importantly, black currant, the flavor of crème de cassis, is one of the best flavors in the world.

Black currant is a remarkably complex fruit, balancing intense berry flavor with flower bud, tannins, and a hint of savory toast flavor, like a perfectly darkened toast smeared thickly with jam. Top just a splash of crème de cassis de Dijon—1/2 or 1 ounce—with 4 to 5 ounces of a sparkling wine made in the method champenoise, like Crémant de Loire, Crémant de Bourgogne, or Cava, and see if you’re not convinced.

What other cocktails deserve a comeback? Nominate a few in the comments.

11 Comments

Taylor R. July 15, 2016
Ahhh! Mireille et Robert! I have such fond memories of those videos.
 
M July 15, 2016
I find it so strange there are still cocktail stigmas to banish, when it's been well documented that we went through a long, dark period of good drinks becoming saccharine nightmares.<br /><br />As for cocktails that need a comeback.. The Angel Face. It was never popular (that I heard of), but it's a gem on the bridge between old-school sweet and stronger, stirred drinks. 1:1:1 gin, apricot brandy, calvados. It's also a great cocktail for tasting how much better ingredients can improve a drink. (Better calvados and a richer-flavoured apricot brandy, especially)
 
Author Comment
fiveandspice July 15, 2016
That sounds delicious! I haven't tried the Angel Face, but I'm definitely going to now.
 
M July 19, 2016
Hope you enjoy it! It's a recipe from the Savoy, and a reminder that the book has a lot more than old standbys :)
 
Greenstuff July 15, 2016
I guess I missed the memo! My family never stopped drinking kirs and kir royales. I don't recall ever having to look too hard to buy cassis from France and grew black currents that were legal and safe for white pines 30 years ago. Now you have me wondering what other cultural shifts I've missed. <br /><br />Oh wait..I know one. We never stopped making cheese fondue either.
 
PHIL July 15, 2016
HA HA! Fondue was so out it came back around and is in again... I know I was getting old when my sperry topsiders from 1980 are the hottest thing now. I'm hoping the Miami vice look comes back.. I have a few of those jackets in the basement somewhere
 
Author Comment
fiveandspice July 15, 2016
I'm sure it will be coming back any day now. :)
 
Rachel July 15, 2016
Witloof, (love the name!) I hear you. I love kir, but so few bars make them right. I usually order one at a french restaurant, and I certainly wish they would make a comeback the way aperol or the bitter herbal liqueurs (like Amaro) have. Usually it is a wallop of Chambord with a little cheap fizz on top. Would be nice to have one that is made with real creme de cassis.
 
sarah July 15, 2016
Since my parents allowed me to drink alcohol each of us would have one at Christmas and one at Sylvester. I don't know where or when they learned about it, but I was introduced just a few years ago. We always make it with Champagne, since we're celebrating ;)
 
PHIL July 15, 2016
Kir Royale was definitely an 80's thing along with big hair and suspenders. I think most places made them with Chambord with an orange twist. Based on your comments regarding Cassis that was probably the case.
 
witloof July 15, 2016
I was introduced to kir when I lived in Paris during the the early 90's and it's still my preferred aperitif {in fact I am planning to serve them at my birthday dinner next week}. Although I live in NYC, where people are supposed to be more sophisticated, i run into all kinds of problems ordering it in restaurants. No one knows what it is, and I've had to endure numerous long, exhausting conversations with bartenders to get them to make me one. My favorite kir in New York is served at Lupa and I always have to have a fight with the waiter when I order it. {Typical exchange: Waiter: "We don't serve them." Me: "Yes, you do, I've been coming here for 15 years, and I always have one Just tell the bartender and he'll make it for me," etc. etc.} The bartenders there make it with Mirto, an Italian liqueur which is even more delicious than creme de cassis.