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.