Like many delicious aperitifs, digestifs, liqueurs, and other items in bottles, Lillet was underutilized for many years. In those somewhat barren times (and here I’m talking about, oh, the early 1960s through about the turn of the century) many of the more intriguing mixtures fell a bit off the cocktail map. Lillet was one of them—at least on the US cocktail map, though Europe didn’t lose its way quite as much.
This was a mistake worth crying over, and one I’m glad has been corrected with the advent of bottle expansion on bars both out and at home. Because of this cocktail and cocktail ingredient renewal, the French favorite Lillet has made quite a comeback. But what (you might ask) is it, actually? It’s an aromatized wine, which makes it a branch in essence of the vermouth family tree, a drink made with a wine base and various spices and herbs and fairy dust. In the most known Blanc variety, it has a light orange essence with a hint of bitters and herbs. The lesser-known Rouge is made from a red wine base and has a slightly heartier disposition.
The Lillet history traces back to 1887, when brothers Paul and Raymond Lillet came up with the first white wine-based recipe, though they didn’t start selling it until 1895—and then mostly just in the Bordeaux region of France. At that point it was known as Kina Lillet and contained a heavier does of quinine than today’s version, as well as more of the Peruvian kina kina tree’s bark. Later, in 1986, the quinine amount was lowered, as was the tree bark, providing a slightly lighter mix that’s perfect over ice with an orange twist. The red-wine variety came out in 1962, and recently a Lillet Dry came out for U.K. customers.
During the dead times mentioned above, Lillet did fare a bit better than some of its bottled pals, in large part because of its association with a certain famous spy who’s celebrating his 50th birthday this year. James Bond added to the Lillet luster when he ordered a Martini with the instruction to make it with “three measures of Gordon’s, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet,” in Ian Fleming’s 1953 book Casino Royale. Mr. Bond christened the drink The Vesper after a certain femme fatale and Lillet’s history was changed for the better. If you’d like to try Lillet in another fine drink, I suggest The Great Secret, which sounds even more mysterious than a Bond drink (and which tastes nice enough that the superspy himself might take time out to slowly sip it). This recipe’s from Ginger Bliss and the Violet Fizz:
The Great Secret
2 ounces gin
1 ounce Lillet Blanc
Dash of Angostura bitters
Orange twist, for garnish
1. Fill a mixing glass or cocktail shaker with cracked ice. Add the gin, Lillet, and bitters. Stir well.
2. Strain into a cocktail glass. Twist the twist over the glass and then drop it in.
Great Spirit photo reprinted from Ginger Bliss and the Violet Fizz, copyright 2012, Jerry Errico and Harvard Common Press.