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It's Time to Reclaim the Kir Royale

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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.

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One of Mireille, one for Robert.
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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

Tags: kir royale, champagne, black currant