Kir and Kir Royale: Two Iconic French Wine Cocktails

updated Mar 9, 2022
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Cocktail Week

Kir and its more salubrious cousin
Kir Royale.

I was introduced to Kir many years ago while living in France. Every Sunday, before a fabulously long lunch, friends, family and neighbors would gather for the apéritif’ hour to chat, laugh, comment on the state of the nation and nibble on a wide selection of savory, salty snacks. Typically, Kir was the drink of choice and on special occasions Kir Royale.

The History of Kir

Kir originated in Burgundy, France. It is named after the priest Canon Félix Kir, who was a hero in the French Resistance during the Second World War, and also the Mayor of the Burgundian town Dijon from 1945 to 1968. He was much revered, and history tells us that he was also a big fan of local products and hence created the drink by mixing the local white wine made from the Aligoté grape (bone dry, acidic, with fairly neutral aromas and flavors and unoaked) with the local blackcurrant liqueur ‘Crème de Cassis’.

Crème de Cassis is a deeply colored, viscous, sweet liqueur, which is made by macerating crushed blackcurrants in eau-de-vie. Once the maceration is complete, the liqueur is drawn off the blackcurrant skins and seeds and then sugar is added. The resulting Crème de Cassis liqueur is 20% abv and has about 400g/l residual sugar.

Canon Felix’s recipe was delicious and a huge success, because the sweetness and flavor of the liqueur provided the perfect foil and balance for the austerity and acidity of the Aligoté wine. So successful was the combination it flourished and became famous not just in Burgundy but all over France, where it was often adapted to include other regional wines and liqueurs, as well as internationally all over the world.

Kir Royale, differs from Kir in that it is made using Champagne, rather than the Aligoté white wine. Hence it is more expensive to make and typically reserved for celebrations and special occasions.

How To Make the Best Kir

Contrary to popular belief, neither Kir nor Kir Royale should be very sweet or very deeply colored drinks. The perfect combination should result in a drink that is a pale blush color, crisp, refreshing, with a delicate blackcurrant flavor and only slightly sweet — just sweet enough to take the edge off the wine’s acidity, but not seem syrupy. Too much liqueur addition destroys the necessary freshness to work as an apéritif and makes the drink too sweet and alcoholic.

From my many years of making and enjoying Kir and Kir Royale I have found that the best ratio is roughly 1/5 Crème de Cassis to 4/5 chilled dry white wine or chilled dry Champagne. It is also important to add the Crème de Cassis to the glass first, followed by the wine. Otherwise they do not mix very well or uniformly. The Cassis is room temperature.

I tend to be guided by the color as I mix, stopping when I feel I have achieved the perfect pale blush color. Too deep a pink hue is a sure sign that you have used too much liqueur.

In terms of glassware, the glass you use is really a personal choice. However, in France Kir is traditionally served in a regular small white wine glass and Kir Royale in a Champagne flute.

Since its creation by Canon Felix, Kir and Kir Royale have evolved in many variations. Instead of Crème de Cassis, I sometimes opt for Crème de Mûres (blackberry), Crème de Pêche (peach) or Crème de Framboise (raspberry) as my liqueur. In terms of producers, Guyot is the one of the most widely distributed brands available in the United States.

You can also vary the wine, but it is important to choose a dry, high-acid, unoaked and non-aromatic wine. Fairly simple and relatively inexpensive wines work best. As Aligoté wines are not always easy to find in the United States I often opt for a basic village Chablis, Petit Chablis, or unoaked Bourgogne Blanc.

I’d love to hear from you on your favorite Kir or Kir Royale recipes.

Mary Gorman-McAdams, DWS, is a New York based wine educator, freelance writer and consultant. She holds the Diploma in Wine & Spirits from the Wine and Spirits Education Trust (WSET), and is a candidate in the Master of Wine Program.

Related: Local Clinton Vineyards Cassis Makes a Local Kir Royale