Words by Simon Difford
Sometimes called the ‘Kir Cocktail’ but more properly termed ‘Kir aperitif’ or simply Kir, this drink consists of just two ingredients, crème de cassis and chilled Bourgogne Aligoté white wine, poured into a glass.
The key to a good Kir is the proportion of crème to cassis to white wine and our Kir recipe calls for 6 parts Bourgogne Aligoté white wine to 1 part crème de cassis. Be sure both wine, liqueur and also glass are well-chilled. To help the ingredients combine well, it pays to pour half the wine first, then the cassis, and then the rest of the wine.
The origins of Kir are said to date back to 1904 when a waiter named Faivre first had the idea of mixing white wine with crème de cassis at the Café George, 42 Rue de Montchapet at the corner of Rue de Constantine, Dijon, France.
42 Rue de Montchapet, now Café Le Montchapet, the place where what became known as a Kir was first mixed
Faivre's new drink became known as the 'Cassis Blanc' but is now better known simply as 'Kir' due to its being promoted by a colourful politician and WWII resistance hero by the name of Canon Félix Kir. During his tenure as Mayor of the French city of Dijon, he sought to promote regional products at official functions. The Cannon popularised the concoction of locally made crème de cassis and Bourgogne Aligoté white wine and it quickly became known as Canon Kir's aperitif, then Father Kir's and finally as just Kir.
Félix Kir led quite a life. He was a Catholic priest at the outbreak of the Second World War but became a major resistance fighter against the German occupation earning him the French Honour Cross. In 1945 he became a member of the French Parliament as a 'député' and the mayor of Dijon, an office to which he was re-elected four times and held until his death (aged 92) in 1968.
Dijon City Hall where Canon Kir held official functions
Bourgogne Aligoté is an Appellation d'origine contrôlée (AOC) white wine produced from the Aligoté grape variety in France's Burgundy region. Bourgogne Aligoté tends to be light and acidic in style and usually unoaked. The appellation allows up to 15% Chardonnay to be blended into Bourgogne Aligoté so we suggest substituting with an unoaked Chardonnay if you are unable to source Bourgogne Aligoté. However, Chardonnay tends to lack the high acidity characteristic of Bourgogne Aligoté which so perfectly balances the sweet rich crème de cassis.
Champagne and other sparkling wines are often mixed with crème de cassis to produce a Kir Royal Cocktail but it's worth noting that depending on the brand, brut champagne also usually lacks the acidity needed to balance the rich crème de cassis, so consider using a brut nature or ultra brut champagne.
In 1951, when the Kir was becoming well-known, Roger Damidot, the then owner of the Lejay-Lagoute brand of crème de cassis, the largest liqueur producer in the region, asked the mayor for his the authorisation to use his name [Kir] commercially.
Probably flattered, the mayor agreed and on 20-November 1951, on a French National Assembly letterhead, wrote: "Canon Félix Kir, Member of Parliament and Mayor of Dijon, gives exclusively to the house of Lejay-Lagoute, currently represented by Roger Damidot, the right to use his name for blackcurrant liqueur advertising purposes, in the form he sees fit and notably designate a 'vin blanc cassis'." Armed with this letter, Lejay-Lagoute patented the brand name Kir in March 1952.
Years later, after seeing the increasing popularity of kir as an aperitif, the cannon sought to offer other cassis makers the same privilege but due to Lejay-Lagoute having already registered the Kir trademark he was too late. Numerous court challenges ensued, propelling the case to the highest French court, 'Cour de Cassation' where on 27-October 1992 it confirmed Lejay-Lagoute as having exclusive rights to the Kir trademark.
Following their legal triumph, Lejay-Lagoute registered Kir Royal and Lejay-Lagoute now produce a pre-mixed bag-in-box Kir and pre-mixed bottled cassis and sparkling wine called Kir Royal.
If made with crémant, cava or another sparkling wine other than champagne then this drink becomes a Kir Pétillant. (Pétillant is French for sparkling.) There are numerous other variations of the classic Kir as follows:
Cidre Royal - made with cider in place of wine with a measure of calvados also added.
Communard/Cardinal - with red wine in place of white wine.
Hibiscus Royal - with sparkling wine, peach and raspberry liqueurs, and garnished with a hibiscus flower.
Kir Berrichon - named after Berrichon, a French dialect spoken in the French province of Berry, and made with red wine and crème de mûre in place of crème de cassis.
Kir Bière or Tarantino - made with lager or light ale in place of wine.
Kir Breton - named after Breton, a Celtic language spoken in Brittany, France where Breton cider is made. In the Kir Breton cider is used in places of wine.
Kir Impérial - made with crème de framboise or another raspberry liqueur such as Chambord in place of cassis, and with champagne in place of white wine.
Kir Normand - made with Normandy cider in place of white wine.
Kir Pamplemousse - made with grapefruit liqueur and sparkling white wine.
Kir Pîche - made with peach liqueur in place of crème de cassis.
Kir Pétillant - made with sparkling wine.
Kir Royal Cocktail - made with Champagne.
Pink Russian - made with milk in place of wine.