Let’s Play With Lillet (...hey, that also rhymes!)
With its classic, striking label and near omnipresence in pop culture and commercial art for over a century (a trait it shares with the quite different, Italian-made Campari), a bottle of Lillet looks at least familiar to almost everyone. James Bond even called for it by name! But outside of this familiarity, the liquid inside is a mystery to many people - in fact, one of the questions we get most often is to describe what Lillet actually is. So, without further ado, let’s play our game of the day: A little Q&A about Lillet.
Q: What is Lillet?
A: Lillet belongs to a broad family of aperitifs called aromatized wines. Yes, possibly the most important thing to remember about Lillet (and Lillet-akin products we cover below) is that is a wine, and to treat is as such.
Q: But what is an Aromatized Wine?
A: Aromatized (or aromatised) wines are wines that have been lightly fortified with with alcohol (usually grape-based) and have been additionally, naturally flavored. The flavor is derived from sources encompassing herbs, spices, fruit and all sorts of plant derivatives. Pretty much any kind of wine can be aromatised - though, some wine are definitely more fit for this than others. The end result is always a product of great care and skill from the hands of a winemaker, distiller or blender.
Aromatized wines break down into a few subtypes - and though, as with all beverages with multiple historical sources, concrete lines can be a bit hard to draw, we tend to break up aromatized wines into two large groups: vermouths and wine based aperitifs.
Vermouth: Very much deserving of its own deep dive into this diverse category - for the purpose of this article, the important thing to take away is that historically vermouth is an aromatized wine that contains wormwood (in fact, the word Vermouth seems to be a French variation of the German word Wermut, meaning “wormwood”). Originating in Italy, vermouth is now made all over the world.
Aromatized Wine Based Aperitifs (AWBA for the rest of this article): This is a bit of an umbrella category containing pretty much everything that is an aromatized wine that is NOT a vermouth. We oversimplify a bit, but to draw our line in the sand - we’ll take that to mean that they generally contain no wormwood or wormwood flavors.
AWBA breaks down into two groups: Quinquina and Americano. The real difference between these two comes down to what their main bittering agent is - quinine vs gentian root.
Americano: Not to be confused with the Campari based cocktail of the same name, which does have connection to America - here the term’s root is “amer,” the french word for “bitter”. This type of AWBA’s main flavoring ingredient is gentian root.
Quinquina (read: Kin-Kin-ah): This is the category in which Lillet most easily fits. French AWBA that is flavored with quinine - a product of the cinchona tree.
[Forgot all about quinine and gentian? Refresh with our deep rooted post here]
Q: Are all types of Lillet the same?
A: No - they are pretty different. There are three types of Lillet: Blanc, Rouge and Rosé. Blanc (or Kina Lillet as it was known for its first 100 years) is the most well known Lillet product out there, and the one normally called for in classic cocktails. Rouge was introduced in United States in the 1960s to coincide with the growing demand for red wines. Rosé is much newer addition (2011), and, like its Rouge sibling was similarly made to go along with the exploding popularity of Rosé wine (though unlike actual Rosé wine, the Lillet version is made from a blend of grapes that make up the Blanc and Rouge varieties).
Q: What do they taste like?
A: Blanc comes off as luscious, gently fruity and keenly acidic. Mid-palate the flavors include kiwi, white grapes, raisins, and a vegetal quality. The finish is ripe and delicately spiced. It’s refreshing and light.
Rouge has a bouquet of freshly picked grapes, black cherries, black raspberries, apricots and pepper. In the mouth, it behaves like a rich, chewy red wine from the sun-drenched south of France. It has a short finish that's mildly fruity and ripe.
Rosé has aromas of ripe yet tart red grapes, raspberries and blackberries with hints of cinnamon and grape vines. Entry is clean, tart and properly fruity; then intensely grapey, juicy and savory. It finishes elegantly in a grape preserves-like manner.
Q: Where did Lillet come from?
A: The Bordeaux region of France. 1887 saw the first bottling of Kina Lillet by brothers Pierre and Raymond Lillet. The Lillet brothers were capitalizing on the market trend of the times that saw the convergence of recreational alcohol with potentially healthful plant extracts. On the heels of a wider acceptance of the dangers of microbial life in food and medicine, wine saw the benefits of being a generally safer alternative to unknown, non-alcoholic beverages. Quinine containing tonics had also been noted for their benefits seen in malaria stricken patients, and so too gained a reputation as “health-boosting.” It was a very short matter of time before “tonic wines,” or quinquinas, emerged.
Lillet stood out by being the only white wine based “tonic wine” on the market and by having the distinction of being from Bordeaux, a region associated with some of the most famous wines in the world. This helped Lillet gain rapid prominence, and by the 1920’s, it was already being served at high society functions across the Atlantic. High profile, art driven ad campaigns (that continue to this day) helped cement the image of Lillet as a drink in a class of its own - to a degree where we often use the word Lillet to stand it for white wine based aperitifs.
Q: How do I use it?
A: Lillet is a great pre-dinner aperitif completely on its own. Some people prefer to drink it chilled as an alternative to white wine. Some pour it over ice and throw in a lemon or orange twist. Try it with club soda or your favorite sparkling wine. Use it in a 50/50 split with a bitter aperitivo. There is really no wrong way!
Lillet has a rich history in cocktail mixing as an ingredient that's hard to get wrong. Lillet is so naturally pleasant, that even if you were to use too much, you'd still wind up with a perfectly drinkable cocktail. A good rule of thumb is that Lillet is best friends with gin! Certainly Lillet can also work with other spirits (especially unaged ones) - but the gin combination is almost always guaranteed to work. To give you some fun ideas, here are a few classics, new and old that showcase what a lovely cocktail staple it can be:
The Gin & French
In the mix of cocktails that eventually led to the evolution of the modern Martini, we find a more obscure cocktail that lies somewhere between a Martini and a Martinez. There was a time and place when a regular Martini was one made with half gin and half dry vermouth (often thought of as French vermouth), and different versions sought to combine gin with sweet vermouth (often thought of as Italian vermouth). In some places this variation picked up the name Gin & It - "It" being a stand in for "Italian". Lillet isn't as rich as some sweet vermouths, but it does have a nice dose of sweetness. This makes it a pretty great fit to be a goldilocks cocktail between the two mentioned above. Other names being taken - The Gin & French seems quite fitting. We paired it with a French gin, to really drive the point home (or to France).
The Gin & French
1 1/2 oz Dry Gin (Citadelle)
1 1/2 oz Lillet
Stir with ice in a mixing glass. Strain. Express oils from lemon twist and drop in drink.
White Negroni | Negroni Bianco
We talked a couple weeks ago about the undeniable star status of the Negroni, so it should be expected that variations on the format will occur. This variation (and the variations on the variation), from London’s Wayne Collins, has become a minor classic in its own right, popping up at bars all over alongside the famous original. The gin element stays in place, but Campari is replaced with the gentian-forward French aperitif Suze, sweet vermouth’s spot is taken by floral Lillet Blanc, and the proportions are tweaked.
1 1/2 oz Gin (New Deal No.1 Gin)
1 oz Lillet Blanc
3/4 oz Suze
Stir with ice in a mixing glass and strain into old fashioned glass over a large ice cube. Express oils from lemon twist and drop in drink.
For a lighter, less bitter take on the White Negroni, try equal parts Gin, Cocchi Americano (a great Lillet alternative we cover below), and Dolin Blanc, with a couple dashes of grapefruit bitters and an orange peel garnish.
Lillet even makes an appearance in a famous Martini: The Vesper - James Bond’s great contribution to the drinking world, much better, if less famous, than his Vodka Martini. Invented by the Bond man himself, Ian Fleming, in the first Bond novel, Casino Royale, this drinks adds a little bit of vodka, gin, and Lillet Blanc, which is working here in the role of a vermouth substitute - a great use for Lillet!
1 1/2 oz Gin (Big Gin)
3/4 oz Vodka (St. George All Purpose)
3/4 oz Lillet Blanc
Stir with ice in mixing glass. Strain. Garnish with a lemon twist.
You can also try this cocktail as kit here, where we substituted Cocchi Americano for Lillet, to give it an extra edge that we're sure Bond would approve of.
Corpse Reviver No. 2
This delicious, macabre sounding concoction was one of a number of drinks to share its name, all intended as a kind of tonic the morning after a heavy night of drinking. Hair of the dog. This was brilliant branding, as it allowed this drink, the best of the Corpse Reviver family, to avoid obscurity. Though it dates from before Prohibition, the recipe was first put to print in 1930’s Savoy Cocktail Book. Another equal parts success story, it really comes alive with the added complexity of an Absinthe rinse, giving the whole upbeat citrus affair a dark and mysterious aura. And though one of these may assist in an unfortunate hangover, it is advised to heed the original printed warning: “Four of these taken in swift succession will un-revive the corpse again.”
Corpse Reviver No. 2
3/4 oz Dry Gin (Four Pillars)
3/4 oz Lillet Blanc
3/4 oz Triple Sec (Combier)
3/4 oz Fresh Lemon Juice
2-3 dashes St. George Verte Absinthe
Combine Gin, Cocchi Americano, Cointreau, and lemon juice and shake with ice. In a chilled cocktail glass, dash the Absinthe and coat the glass. Discard excess Absinthe and strain other ingredients into glass. No garnish.
Q: I heard that Lillet changed and is now boring and completely different, is that true?
A: Changed - maybe? Boring - definitely not! True to the ways of long established, iconic producers like Chartreuse or Campari, Lillet is quite tight lipped about what exactly makes Lillet, Lillet. For almost one hundred years, Lillet Blanc (the most well known variety of Lillet, and the one we have been talking about until this point) went by the name Kina Lillet. In 1986, the product was renamed and supposedly “reformulated,” though it’s not exactly clear how. Many sources claim to know - and generally say that Lillet dropped the word “Kina” because they drastically cut the amount of quinine used to conform to American demands for a less bitter aperitif. This may or may not be true. Another version states that, yes Lillet did cut the amount of quinine used, but only to bring it in line with less sugar content in the effort of making Lillet a bit more dry. Lastly there are those that claim that all Lillet did was reformulate their blending process to produce a more consistent product, and that the dropping of the word Kina was a marketing move to make Lillet feel as monumental as other household names like Campari.
Our take is to take Lillet Blanc for what it is now - which is light, fruity, refreshing with a pleasant slight bitter note. It’s a great aperitif (especially on a hot day, served over ice with an orange peel). For many people it quickly becomes a must have. It makes fantastic cocktails - even with the possibility that they might taste somewhat different from the original versions.
And we’re all for experimenting! There is a collection of similar Quinquinas and Americanos that might be a better fit for you - and we cover them a bit further in the article.
Q: So how do I store it?
A: Remember that even though Lillet is lightly fortified, it is still a wine - treat it the same. While it does it a bit slower, once it comes in contact with air, these aperitifs do start to oxidize. Over time they lose their fragrance and start to taste more sour. Once opened, our best advice is to refrigerate it. Even better if you use a vacuum sealing cork. Under these conditions a wine based aperitif can stay quite fresh for up to 2 months (though one month to six weeks is the more common, on-the-safe-side advice).
Q: Do I NEED it? Can I skip it in a cocktail?
A: Lillet and Lillet-like aperitifs are pretty unique tasting. If you like drinking them on their own, nothing else works as a great substitute. In a cocktail, it’s a bit more flexible. If you choose to skip Lillet in a cocktail - make sure to replace it with something that can play a similar role. Quinquinas can be easily replaced with Americanos, and if lacking that - a blanc vermouth can work well enough to replace Lillet Blanc. Similarly, some red vermouths can be used to replace Lillet Rouge. Still, vermouths aren’t the best substitutes as they will lack some bitterness, and your cocktail will definitely not taste the same - but it should produce something in a similar realm, and carefully chosen bitters can balance things out.
Q: What are these alternatives to Lillet you mentioned before?
A: There are definitely many white wine based aperitifs that can be great alternatives to Lillet. And in calling them alternatives it's incredibly important to note that it does not make them second class to Lillet -- it's just that Lillet is so darn famous. Many of them have a more confidently expressed character, more bitterness, or other characteristics that make them more desirable to cocktailers of all kinds. We highlight three producers from distinct parts of the globe:
Cocchi Americano (+ Rosa)
Cocchi Americano: The Italian producer is no stranger to aromatized wines - their vermouths are some of the most popular in our shop! Cocchi Americano has been around since the 1890s, though it's only in the last decade that it has made its way to the States. It's made from a sweeter moscato grape, and is primarily bittered by gentian rather then quinine - but many a bartender and seasoned imbiber swear that it is closer in flavor to what Kina Lillet was, than what Lillet Blanc is now. Whether true or not - we love it! Some of our favorite classic Lillet cocktails can use Cocchi Americano instead, and the deeper, herbier taste makes all the difference.
Cocchi Rosa: The Rosa version has a similar relationship to Lillet Rouge as the normal Cocchi Americano has to Lillet Blanc. It's earthier, herbier. Where Lillet Rouge goes more into lush, sweeter red wine territory, Cocchi Rosa is a bit more sangria-like. Great to sip on its own, or to use as a red vermouth alternative in cocktail experiments.
From the A.A. Badenhorst Winery in South Africa comes Caperitif, or the Cape Aperitif. Chenin Blanc is fortified with spirit, gently sweetened by the sugar of the grapes, bittered by cinchona bark and flavored with 35 ingredients from the Cape, such as fynbos, kalmoes and naartjies. The rich floral variety of the Cape coast, including many plants that don’t occur anywhere else in the world lend their unique flavors and intriguing aromas. It drinks like a bitter, drier and more aromatic Lillet Blanc.
Kina L'Aero d'Or Aperitif
Our last Lillet alternative takes us back to France, albeit to a different part. Kina L'Aéro d'Or reflects an Alps-Provence style with white wine made from the Piedmont-grown cortese grape infused with cinchona bark, orange peel, wormwood and other exotic spices. Aroma of quince and fine marmalade, and a complex, mildly bitter taste that teases the tongue as its well-balanced sweetness prolongs the finish. Spectacular in all the classic cocktails we mentioned such as the Vesper or Corpse Reviver #2.