Créme de Cacao vs Dark Créme de Cacao: What’s the Difference?

The bottle of chocolate liqueur lying on your bar cart is far more versatile than you’d expect.



Crème de cacao is one of those bar cart bottles that lives in your fridge, purchased once for a specific or seasonal recipe and never to be touched again. But that lingering bottle of nearly-full chocolate liqueur is more versatile than you think.

“Crème de cacao is one of the most diverse liqueurs you could have behind the bar,” says Luis Alfredo Vega Segarra, a mixologist at Condado Vanderbilt in San Juan, Puerto Rico. “From the sweet and rich flavors to the earthy and powerful color, this bottle can be used to enrich any cocktail. If you ask me what I think when I see a bottle of crème de cacao…it’s simplicity, sweetness, and elegance mixed in a bottle.”

""If you ask me what I think when I see a bottle of crème de cacao…it’s simplicity, sweetness, and elegance mixed in a bottle.”"

— Luis Alfredo Vega Segarra, mixologist, Condado Vanderbilt in San Juan, Puerto Rico

However, walk into a bottle shop and you may be confronted with an unexpected decision: clear or dark crème de cacao? Many cocktail recipes fail to specify which you’re supposed to use in your drink. Each presents its own unique profile and performs differently when mixed with other ingredients. Here’s your cheat sheet for the two most common styles of creme crème de cacao.

What is créme de cacao?

“Crème de Cacao is a chocolate-flavored liqueur traditionally made by distilling raw cacao beans and adding additional cacao and vanilla beans,” says Gabe Sanchez, the cocktail expert at Midnight Rambler at The Joule. “Good Crème de Cacao has a very pronounced chocolate flavor, as the name hints. However, a very good crème de cacao will also have undertones of vanilla. It won’t be overly sweet or bitter.”

Despite what the name suggests, créme de cacao contains no cream or milk byproducts. Instead, the term créme refers to a French style of sweet liqueur. Under EU guidelines, liqueurs that contain at least 250 grams of sugar per liter must be labeled a crème. “Crème just means it is high in sugar so there is no dairy to worry about for the lactose intolerant in the crowd,” says Josef Griz, general manager at Darling, Park Lane Hotel New York.

While créme de cacao doesn’t contain lactose itself, the liqueur often appears in cream-based cocktails, like the Brandy Alexander or Grasshopper.

Crème de Cacao Fast Facts

  • Clear in color

  • Flavors of milk chocolate

  • Vanilla flavors are traditionally added

  • Major brands: Maison Giffard, DeKuyper

  • Use it in: Grasshopper, Brandy Alexander

Crème de cacao can be made in one of two styles: white or dark. White crème de cacao isn’t a nod to white chocolate — the name refers to the color of the liqueur. The end product is crystal clear and distinctively chocolatey. “The profile vividly resembles a sweet chocolate milky flavor that is undeniable in a cocktail,” says Segarra.

It's worth noting that most white crème de cacao will simply be labeled as “crème de cacao,” though the lack of color should be an easy visual cue as to which style you’re looking at.

To make white crème de cacao, a producer starts with cacao beans or nibs that are steeped, distilled, then sweetened, and diluted until the final spirit reaches around 20–25% ABV. A second maceration of cacao beans often happens after distillation to amp up the flavor.

The base spirit of the liqueur can vary from producer to producer. Some use a neutral grain spirit or vodka, while others utilize more complex spirits. “Créme de cacao can be really fun when the base is rum,” says Stephen Rowe, co-owner of Dario of Minneapolis.

What is dark créme de cacao?

Dark créme de cacao is chocolate-hued and opaque, extracted by percolating the cacao beans instead of a simple infusion. “Dark creme de cacao is the product of cacao beans that are infused post-distillation,” says Tyler Chauvin, assistant GM of food and beverage at Swingers. “The result is a richer, more chocolate-forward spirit in both flavor and color.”

Dark Créme de Cacao Fast Facts

  • Deep brown color

  • Rich, bitter, and cocoa-forward

  • Vanilla flavors are traditionally added

  • Major brands: Tempus Fugit, Drillaud

  • Use it in: Golden Cadillac, Irish Coffee, Chocolate Martini

Fernando Contreras, bartender at Susurros del Corazón, Auberge Resorts Collection in Punta de Mita, México, prefers a triple Chocolate Martini “in multiple forms, including white cacao liqueur, dark cacao liqueur, and locally sourced cacao nibs topped with Irish cream,” he says. “It’s a full-bodied, after-dinner cocktail to end the night.”

History of créme de cacao

The process of chocolate distillation dates back centuries. “The production of créme de cacao is quite fascinating,” says Segarra. “It dates to the 1600s when monks in Europe received cacao beans from the Americas.” No one knows for certain the initial inventor of the liqueur, but records suggest that French monasteries started distilling the beans around the same time that wormwood and herb elixirs were being made.

The liqueur was sipped neat as an aperitif until the early 1900s when an iteration of the Alexander cocktail, equal parts gin and cream, first appeared in Hugo Enslin’s 1916 book How to Mix Drinks. By the 1980s and ’90s, créme de cacao started appearing in Chocolate Martinis and other sweet dessert drinks and party beverages.

How do you drink créme de cacao?

Today, créme de cacao shines in a range of new-school and historic drinks, including the Grasshopper, Golden Cadillac (heavy cream, créme de cacao, and Galliano), or the famed New York City bar The Dead Rabbit’s Irish Hot Chocolate,

“My favorite application with the stuff has always been the 20th Century cocktail,” says Rowe. “It’s a gin sour with lemon juice, créme de cacao, Lillet Blanc. We use Cocchi Americano and a little simple syrup. It's a fun gin drink.”

Ben Lieppman, the beverage director of RPM Restaurants in Chicago, prefers to use créme de cacao in place of a traditional sweetener (like simple syrup or agave nectar) in an Oaxaca Old Fashioned or an Irish Coffee. In contrast, New York City bar Dante uses a robust amount of créme de cacao in their Chocolate Negroni to provide the necessary chocolate backbone.

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