French Classic: Lillet Through the Ages

Lillet Rouge cocktail - French apertif - fortified wine from FranceThere may be no better drink on a warm afternoon than a chilled, bracing aperitif. The best among them are crisp, low in alcohol (roughly equivalent to table wine) and high in acidity—we’re talking the type of libation that sharpens the appetite and leaves you with the desire for another sip. Bitters are a natural with the Italians, while vermouth is a charm for the British, but few aperitifs have the universal appeal of France’s Lillet.

   Brothers Paul and Raymond Lillet first concocted the libation in 1872 in the town of Podensac, south of Bordeaux. They infused white Bordeaux wine with citrus liqueur and quinine to make a golden potion with a pleasantly bitter bite that was then matured in oak casks. Originally, all Lillet was white; a red version was added in the 1960s, primarily geared to the U.S. market.

Lillet - Paul and Raymond Lillet - history of the French fortified wine, the perfect apertif
Brothers Raymond (left) and Paul Lillet first concocted the fortified wine that bears their surname in 1872.

   The real vogue of Lillet dates to the 1920s, when the company launched a major advertising campaign featuring the colorful, now classic posters by French artist Robert Wolff. The drink spread to the United Kingdom, where it was featured in magazine ads with legendary mixologist Harry Craddock, and eventually the drink caught on in America. The classic serving method was either straight from a chilled bottle or on the rocks, both accompanied by a twist or slice of orange.

The Vesper - 0007 Martini of ChoiceFrench Flavor

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   Lillet underwent an evolution over the years. The original product was known as Kina Lillet, because the formula included extracted bark from the South American cinchona tree—or “kina-kina.” It was reformulated in 1987 with assistance from experts at the University of Bordeaux, who advocated removing the quinine for mass appeal. Lillet Dry was introduced in 1945, designed to mix with gin in cocktails. In addition to the red (which was revamped in 1990), there is now a rosé as well as a reserve version that receives extra oak aging.

Lillet 1920s ad campaign - French artist Robert Wolff

   The most famous reference to Lillet in pop culture occurs in Ian Fleming’s 1953 novel and 2006 film Casino Royale, when James Bond orders the drink that became the Vesper Martini: “Three measures of Gordon’s, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet: shaken, not stirred.” Cocktail historians now believe that Bond was really referring to Lillet Dry, but the Vesper has become a classic. Close behind is the Corpse Reviver #2, first mentioned in Craddock’s Savoy Cocktail Book in 1930. This nifty hangover remedy also contains gin, lemon juice, Cointreau and a dash of absinthe—once again, shaken.

   Among the more interesting cocktail recipes on the company’s website are the Lillet Hugo (Lillet Blanc, elderflower liqueur, sparkling water and a slice of lime), the Blushing Manhattan (Lillet Rosé, whiskey, gomme syrup and grapefruit bitters) and Lillet Sangría (Lillet Rouge, Crème de Framboise, pink grapefruit juice and lemonade). More intriguing still are the recipes that incorporate Lillet as an ingredient or preparations that pair well with a glass of the aperitif. One calls for poaching nine large, ripe white peaches in an entire bottle of Lillet Blanc spiked with cloves, verbena leaves and peppercorns. Better yet, steam fresh scallops in a combination of fish fumet, Lillet Blanc, shallots and chervil leaves.

   For the ultimate hedonistic pairing, purchase a jar of onion jam and the most authentic baguette you can find. Slice the bread thin, spread on the jam, top with shavings of duck foie gras and a pinch of sea salt, then enjoy with a chilled glass of Lillet. You’ll be glad you did.

Kina Lillet - French Fortified Wine

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