Cassis—the deep, dark liqueur made from black currants macerated in alcohol and paired with white wine to make a Kir, or with Champagne for the sparkly brunch standby Kir Royale—is often associated with tipple-tastic memories of a trip to France, from whence it has long been imported.
Or, less charmingly, as the sticky-sweet dust-collector on your bar from DeKuyper.
But as more New York farmers have started growing the tiny, tart fruit, some local vintners—like Clinton Vineyards in the Hudson Valley and Finger Lakes Distilling up on Seneca Lake—are embracing the state’s booming currant crop, turning the acidic little berries into vibrant, velvet-textured versions that don’t come in bottles from Burgundy.
Brought to the New World in the 1600s, both black and red currants were once grown widely in New York, where the berry’s high vitamin C content was touted as a cure-all or simply a healthy dietary addition (it’s got four times the amount of vitamin C of oranges and was used to soothe everything from sore throats to sour stomachs). Currants were consumed in myriad forms such as syrups, jams, baked goods and liqueurs.
But the fruit fell into utter obscurity due to a fungal disease called white pine blister rust that was particularly devastating to black currants. The problem wasn’t that the rust killed off the crop, but rather that the blight also threatened the trees in its name. Logging industry interests easily quashed those of the tiny, hard-to-harvest berries, and a federal quarantine in 1911 was followed by state-by-state bans that put the kibosh on currants.
The federal quarantine was lifted in 1966, but in New York currants remained berry non grata until 2003, when fungal-resistant versions of the bush were developed at Cornell—thanks in large part to horticultural researcher Steve McCay, who pushed for the plant to be revisited as a viable New York State crop. Once proven effective, farmers got the green light to replant. Clinton Vineyards, which made about 400 cases last year, produced the first bottles as part of the initial currant test pilot in 1999.
“What happened was Steve McCay from Cornell came to us because he knew our wines,” recalls Phyllis Feder, who founded the winery with her husband, Ben, now deceased, in 1977. “[McCay] told us the whole story about how Cornell had developed a way to breed the plant that would not have the issues that caused the ban. He said, ‘We’d like to see what you folks would be able to do with black currants.’ They brought us a small amount, and we produced a wonderful cassis that came to the attention of a local farmer, Greg Quinn. He loved it and decided he wanted to grow black currants. We put him in touch with McCay, and the two of them worked to get the ban lifted.” And they did.
“Ben was a very enthusiastic and passionate guy,” says Feder of her late husband, a book designer turned gentleman winemaker. “A romantic, so he loved the idea of something that was new. Like having an affair!” she laughs.
But Ben’s affair—cheating on their wines with an experimental, beady little fruit—proved a perfect fit for the enterprising couple. “He was a fella who liked a challenge, so this had all the elements to engage him. And his smile and the glisten in those blue eyes was infectious. People responded—especially numero uno! We thought, well, this could be really fun.”
So Ben created a cassis label, and set out to show New York State that currants were a good gamble. In 2005, the rich, heady liqueur got a glowing reception in a BusinessWeek article and it’s been gaining ground since. Today, Feder’s handcrafted cassis—with its gorgeously earthy nose and complex, savory quality beneath its dark, streamlined fruit and port-like but dry finish—is sold at Heights Chateau and the Green Grape here in Brooklyn, not to mention the venerable Four Seasons and Sherry-Lehmann in Manhattan. It’s a natural for the garden-to-glass enthusiasts who like to keep things local in their highball. But it needn’t be paired with sparkling wine or another mixer. It’s gorgeous in unconventional combinations—like as a substitute for sweet vermouth in a Manhattan—or even all by itself.
“I don’t mind saying that I’m an old-fashioned girl, and I love a Kir Royale,” says Feder. “But when I’m thinking of something stronger, I love taking cracked ice and having vodka with cassis with a little lime.” She’s also found culinary uses for her eggplant-hued liqueur. “It’s exquisite on fruit salad and great in a vinaigrette, too. It lends a very special dimension.”
The crop’s something of a gamble—because you can spend hours picking fruit from a single bush and, moreover, because Americans are unfamiliar with the fruit—but hopeful growers had their eyes on the juice, as its high rate of antioxidants is touted as a miracle elixir. Red Jacket Orchards’ bottles of the refreshingly not-too-sweet juice are winning fans fast—but upstate wineries and distillers had another idea.
Several other producers in the Hudson Valley are on board now, including American Fruits in Warwick, New York (who distill locally sourced berries into their Black Currant Cordial, which you can find at Astor Wines & Spirits, Brooklyn Oenology and Smith & Vine), as well as Hudson-Chatham Winery in Ghent, New York, co-owned by Carlo DeVito and his wife, Dominique, who is also the president of Hudson Valley Wine Country. DeVito says it all began when his neighbors picked a bumper crop of the little-known berries. “We were approached by a family who owned a farm down the road, Good Farm, and they said, ‘We have currants but no customers, would you be interested?’ It just sort of happened,” says DeVito. The trial run was such a hit that in 2010 they quintupled production from 20 to 100 cases; last year they upped it again to 150.
What makes local cassis different from your run-of-the-mill syrupy fruit-based farm wines or one-off distillates? The finish. DeVito’s starts out with a fresh yet almost jammy nose and fills your mouth with big, luscious, sweet, silky fruit, but morphs just before the point of unreasonableness. Within moments, you feel a tartness coming in that starts out feeling dark and herby, but lightens up, leaving a lingering flavor not unlike pomegranates on your tongue. You find yourself going back for more.
“It’s a lot of big fruit upfront, and really intense, sweet berry flavor, but there’s a tremendous amount of acidity. That balances out all that sweetness,” says DeVito. “It’s the beauty of the currant.”
Other producers are following suit, including Tousey in Clermont (whose beekeeper owner adds his own honey during fermentation) and Brookview Station Winery in Castleton-on-Hudson, which sits on a 100-year-old family farm. Production in the Hudson Valley alone is up to almost 12,000 bottles a year, up from nothing in barely a decade.
“If imitation is the best form of flattery,” says Feder, “then we feel very flattered.”
Photos courtesy of the wineries.