We Americans don’t drink much cassis, and that’s a shame. This thick, rich, French liqueur, made from the fruit of the black currant bush, turns an ordinary glass of dry white wine, sparkling wine, or hard cider into something wonderful. I’ve even heard tell of it being mixed with red wine, or with beer. A little dollop of it in sparkling water is not such a bad thing, either. (The fine people at Clear Creek Distillery make an excellent American version if you don’t want to bother growing your own.)
So why don’t we Americans grow black currants? It was banned in the 1920s for its role in spreading white pine blister rust. By 1966, the USDA realized that the ban was unnecessary and lifted it. Spores of the disease can only travel a thousand feet from black currant bush to pine tree, so keeping them out of pine forests is really pretty easy. Besides, many new varieties are disease-resistant. The ban remains in place in ten states on the east coast, but agricultural scientists are working with those states to educate them about black currant and persuade them to lift the ban.
So you can certainly grow them. Ask at your local garden center, but if you can’t find them locally, Raintree Nursery in Oregon will ship them to you. The authentic French variety is ‘Noir de Bourgogne’, but it doesn’t turn up in garden centers much. ‘Minaj Smyriou’ is self-fertile and resists blister rust. ‘Ben Sarek’ was bred by Scottish researchers to resist frost and do well in backyards, where it reaches only 3 feet. ‘Hilltop Baldwin’ is a popular English variety. They aren’t all self-fertile, so get at least two to ensure good pollination.
To make your own cassis, take a pound of black currants, wash well, and seal in a jar with one 750 ml bottle of grappa, grape eau-de-vie, marc, or good vodka. (I’d choose Ciroc, a vodka distilled from grapes.) Mash the fruit to release the juice, and let it sit for a month, shaking or stirring the jar once a week. Then strain into a new container and add simple syrup (equal parts sugar and water, heated and allowed to cool) to taste. One to two cups simple syrup should do it. Give it a couple more months, and it should be ready to drink.