Dixie Cocktail Courtesy of Hard Water
Mention crème de cacao or crème de menthe to anyone who drank through the 80s and they will cringe as if they had just been offered a pair of parachute pants. Though associated with saccharine, often artificially colored cordials, true crèmes can be elegant, velvety digestifs or superb cocktail modifiers. Today, artisan producers are restoring crèmes to their respectable form, much to the delight of bartenders who use the vibrantly flavored, sweet liqueurs in revivals of long-lost cocktails and terrific new drinks.
John Troia, the owner of Tempus Fugit, a leading force in artisanal American liqueurs, refers to cheap, chemical laden crèmes as “bottom feeders” because “they’re probably down on the bottom shelf at a grocery store or a liquor store.” At his Petaluma, California distillery, he’s working to bring back the nuanced and delicious crèmes of the 1800s, when they were served as digestifs and made from all-natural ingredients. He uses fresh mint and other botanicals in his crème de menthe and Venezuelan cocoa beans and Mexican vanilla for the crème de cacao—both are based on recipes from 19th century distilling manuals.
At chef Charles Phan’s recently opened American whiskey-focused Hard Water, bar director Erik Adkins is a fan of Tempus Fugit and uses its crème de menthe in the Dixie Cocktail. “It’s sort of like a Mint Julep mashed up with an Old Fashioned,” Adkins says of the powerful, mildly herbaceous bourbon cocktail, which also includes Wild Turkey 101, gum syrup, Gran Marnier and Angostura bitters. The bright but boozy drink appears in The Ideal Bartender (1917) by Tom Bullock, a New Orleans bartender who was the first African American to publish a cocktail book. Here, more bars trying to right crèmes’ reputation.
Ba Bar, Seattle
Eric Banh’s casual spot for Vietnamese street food and craft cocktails, bar manager Jon Christiansen uses crème de violette from the Austrian based Rothman & Winter—a pioneer in modern liqueurs—in the bottled Queen Charlotte cocktail. The vibrantly floral, purple-hued liqueur is mixed with Lillet Blanc, minerally Grüner Veltliner wine and orange bitters then carbonated, bottled and served with a straw.
Evelyn Drinkery, New York
The whimsical Alphabet City bar features a section of “spirited phosphates” on the cocktail menu, which includes the crème de cacao-spiked Neverland Ranch. The drink blends Bordeaux’s Mari Brizard Cacao Blanc (a clear crème de cacao made with distilled cocoa beans and a vanilla infusion) with Bombay Sapphire gin, a housemade beet shrub, fresh orange juice, lemon juice and phosphoric acid, which rounds out the drink. It’s then carbonated with CO2 and served over ice.
Lead bartender Nas Mirizadeh uses the lesser-known, richly blackberry-flavored crème de mûre (made by Briottet, a quality producer in Dijon, France) in the sweet-spicy Black and Blue. The cocktail is made by muddling Milagro Silver tequila with fresh blackberries and thinly sliced fresh jalapeños, then adding in the crème de mûre and housemade jalapeño syrup. Shaken with ice then strained into a Champagne flute, the refreshing cocktail is topped off with Gloria Ferrer sparkling rosé.
Ava Gene’s, Portland
Known as the key ingredient in a kir or kir royal (mixed with white or sparkling wine), crème de cassis stars in the Chambery Cassis at this Italian restaurant from Stumptown founder Duane Sorenson. Composed over ice in a Collins glass, the sweetly herbaceous cocktail mixes Briottet crème de cassis with Dolin dry vermouth and is topped with bubbly water.