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In 1841 Auguste-Denis Lagoute infused local blackberries from Dijon to create the first crème de cassis liqueur. Today, the company he started, Lejay Lagoute remains one of only four producers in the French town of Dijon permitted to make ‘Crème de cassis de Dijon’.
Known by many as simply ‘Lejay’ or ‘Le Jay’, hence the distinctive jay bird motif on their labels, Lejay Lagoute are the original makers of crème de cassis. They are also the leading producer, making six million out the nine million bottles sold annually.
In 1841, Auguste-Denis Lagoute, the owner of the Café des Milles Colonnes in Dijon travelled to Paris and was so inspired by the fashionable drink Ratafia de Neuilly, a macerated spirit made from red fruits and spices, that on his return to Dijon he set up a workshop and distillery at 63 Rue Charbot-Charny and established himself as a liquoriste.
After five years of experimentation he completed the recipe for an enhanced blackcurrant flavoured liqueur which he named Crème de Cassis de Lagoute. The production process involved macerating local blackcurrants in alcohol made from local sugar beet with the addition of sugar.
By the time the national railway arrived in Dijon in 1852, Crème de Cassis de Lagoute was well-established on the local market. Auguste-Denis took advantage of the new transport network to expand distribution to the rest of France and abroad. To facilitate increased demand on production he moved to larger premises in the centre of Dijon.
The new railway also brought a train conductor named Henri Legay to town, who married Auguste-Denis’ daughter Elizabeth, and would come to play an important part in the development of the business. On 22 November 1858 he was officially recognised as part of the company which was renamed Lagoute Frères et Legay, and his name was placed above the shop in Rue St Nicolas.
Crème de Cassis de Lagoute had caught the imagination of the age and as demand for it grew, new producers in and around Dijon began making similar products, but in 1859, the cassis producers, café owners and consumers of Dijon gathered in a formal ceremony to recognise Auguste-Denis Lagoute as the official inventor of Crème de Cassis. He was presented with a medal of honour and the ceremony was recorded and witnessed in the official documents of Dijon Ville.
When Auguste-Denis retired, his daughter, Marie Lagoute succeeded him and ran the company alongside Henri Lejay. The marriage of Marie Lagoute’s daughter to Symphorien Lhote, owner of Clos de Vouget (a Burgundian vineyard established by Cistercian monks as early as the 12th century), resulted in a very successful synergy of the two businesses. Symphorien brought expertise to the table and Crème de Cassis de Lagoute continued to win awards and sales increased worldwide.
In 1925 a specific Geographical Indication was established by the Dijon Court of Appeal to define the ingredients and their percentages required to make Crème de Cassis de Dijon. These specifics related directly to the Auguste-Denis Lagoute recipe, which required at least 25% of the blackcurrants to be of the Noir de Bourgogne variety, a minimum that is exceeded by the recipes of Lejay-Lagoute today. It was also stated that it was compulsory to make Crème de Cassis de Dijon in Dijon Ville.
A year after the Geographical Indication was agreed, Lagoute Frères et Legay became part of the Rouvierres and Quenot liquoristes, both owned and run by the entrepreneur Gabriel Damidot. The rationalisation of the three companies and introduction of modern management styles kept Lejay-Lagout active through the depression and ensured its competitive position on the international stage. Damidot’s strategy was to revitalise and modernise crème de cassis through the creation of a new brand of cassis, named SISCA (an anagram of Cassis) which had a more popular appeal in its marketing style and was particularly aimed at international markets.
During WWII, with alcohol content limited by license to just 10% alc./vol. and very limited production volumes allowed, it became near impossible to produce cassis to Auguste-Denis Lagoute’s recipe so Lejay-Lagoute created two non-alcoholic beverages, Novomer and Citromer, orange and lemon drinks respectively. These were sold directly from the factory to locals who could purchase 15 bottles of Novomer and Citromer and receive one bottle of Lejay Crème de Cassis at 10% alc./vol. as a gift. Having maintained brand awareness through the difficult war years, and thanks to a successful advertising campaign, sales soon picked up after the war.
Suntory started selling Lejay’s liquors in Japan in 1982 and the 1990s saw a huge growth in Japanese sales and a growing demand for Lejay Crème de Cassis in Canada, China and Australia. Now in the hands of the Henriot family with Suntory owning a 35% stake which it acquired in 2005, Lejay Lagoute has continued to modernise with the opening of a new production facility in Dijon.