According to Emilie Perrier, beverage director of the Alsatian-inspired Gabriel Kreuther in New York, festive gatherings should commence with a refreshing Kir Royale. “I grew up with the Kir Royale and have an emotional attachment to the drink,” says the native of France’s Côte Roannaise.
The easy-to-make French aperitif, a combination of sparkling wine and the sweet black currant liqueur, crème de cassis, is named for Canon Félix Kir, the French priest, World War II-era hero and one-time mayor of Dijon, who dreamed up the libation. He often served folks a blend of white wine with crème de cassis, called a Kir. This creation then spawned its more vivacious sibling, the effervescent Kir Royale.
While Perrier makes a tried and true version with crème de cassis, she also whips up renditions with raspberry, chestnut, blackberry, cherry, apricot and wild strawberry liqueurs. “Any flavor of a high-quality crème will do,” she points out. All are served naked of garnish and flaunt snappy, clean bubbly. “I prefer to avoid Prosecco or Cava for this drink. Crémant, which is typically used in Alsace, is the best choice because it has great acidity and contrast,” she says. “I love the elegance of this cocktail. It’s not overly sweet, just right to open your palate.”
Sweetness is indeed the downfall of the Kir Royale, with poor-quality brands of sweet sparkling wine or black currant liqueur leading to the simple drink’s downfall. Before the stateside arrival of Lejay, the original crème de cassis, which boasts a recipe that dates from 1841, all that was available to American bartenders was viscous, saccharine brands of black currant liqueur. “Lejay is a drier expression, yet still complex with deep notes of dark currant,” says Katie Stipe, one of the consulting bartenders at the Vine, inside New York’s Hotel Eventi. The bar’s Kir Cocktail, with equal parts Lejay and Amaro di Angostura “essentially combines those two age-old classics, the Kir Royale and the Champagne cocktail. When prepared with well-crafted spirits and balanced with crisp bubbly and expressed lemon oils, this ‘hybrid’ becomes quite sophisticated,” says Stipe.
But straying outside of tradition is also a welcome possibility. Will Thompson, who helms the bar at Yvonne’s in Boston, gives the cocktail a reboot in the form of the nutmeg-dusted Aristocrat. “Drinks should be bright, but not headache-inducing. The trick is to balance out the sweetness with acidity, so our version includes a homemade strawberry syrup and a drier [sparkling] rosé. A touch of Pimm’s gives the drink depth,” he says.
The Kir Royale also provides inspiration for such avant-garde depictions as Adam Weber’s Look Mom, I’m Floating at the Latin-inflected Bar Takito in Chicago. First, Weber packs cranberry and fresh ginger root juices into an ice cube mold. Once frozen, the square is plopped into a glass of bubbly. “It’s so simple, but at the same time more complex than just having a glass of sparkling wine. You’re adding depth and dimension to it with the fruit.”
Old-school or modern, the resuscitated Kir Royale is now another worthwhile excuse to break out the Champagne flute this season.