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Lillet

April 8, 2013

The Facts:

Name: Lillet
Category: Aromatized wine — “tonic wine,” or quinquina
Proof: 34 (17% ABV)
Origin: Bordeaux, France — since 1887.
Composition: 85% wine; 15% fruit liqueur
Styles: Lillet Blanc, Lillet Rouge, Lillet Rose

lillet welcome shot

The Story:

In 1872, the brothers Lillet (Paul and Raymond) began distilling and dealing in wine in the town of Pondensac, just south of Bordeaux, France. Bordeaux then, as now, was big business; beyond its formidable wine reputation, the city sits on the Gironde river just in from the Atlantic coast and was a major trading port, so local residents enjoyed access to the kinds of fruits, herbs, and spices they wouldn’t ordinarily see.

The Lillet brothers began making eaux de vie and liqueurs from some of these exotic fruits (sweet oranges from Valencia, green oranges from Morocco/Tunesia, bitter oranges from Haiti), and before long come up with a recipe for an apertif based on the excellent local wine, bucked up with some liqueur and spiked with the antimalarial tonic quinine, from Peruvian cinchona bark.

The product was explosively popular. They called it Kina Lillet — the “Kina” a reference to  quinquina, the French collective term for apertifs infused with quinine — and by the turn of the century they ceased production on all other liquor and began making Kina Lillet exclusively.  Prohibition in America was obviously a hurdle, but it got a couple nods from soon-to-be-classic cocktail along the way — the Corpse Reviver #2 in 1930 was probably the best of these, but the 20th Century (1937) and Casino Royale’s Vesper (1953) helped it along.

Lillet tried to expand the line in 1962 with Lillet Rouge, made from red wine, specifically for American palates. That Lillet Rouge is phenomenally tasty must’ve been kept some kind of secret, because no one bought it. Tastes drifted away from apertifs and sales continued to sag, and in 1985 the brand was sold to Bruno Borie (of the Grand Cru classified Chateau Ducru-Beaucaillou) and given a face-lift in 1986 — they dropped the “Kina” from the name and just called it Lillet Blanc. Whether or not they changed the recipe (to make it less bitter) remains an area of some (still quite bitter) dispute. More on this below.

Rounding out the line is the Lillet Rose, a delicate,  mostly-blanc mixture of the two products that hit shelves a couple years ago. And they continue to produce a kind of reserve, Jean de Lillet Blanc, which I’d never even heard of before the tasting the other day.

The Dispute:

Lillet now has competition. The cocktail resurgence has been wonderful for it — sales jumped 20% after Daniel Craig ordered the Vesper cocktail in Casino Royale, and with the resurrection of the Corpse Reviver #2 in particular, every well stocked bar now keeps a bottle of Lillet Blanc. However: the competing and the long awaited Cocchi Americano is now available on American shores. Cocchi is less wine forward, both sweeter and more bitter, and general wisdom says that it’s the closest thing to what Kina Lillet used to taste like, before they changed the recipe. Therefore, this wisdom says, if you’ve got the Cocchi, use it in the aforementioned cocktails.

The company line at Lillet has now become we have never changed the recipe shut up you all are lying shut up. This is a difficult position to take in the face of several competing claims: there is a particularly damning book of Lillet history that leads up until the rebranding, as well as a 3rd-party Bordeaux information site that seems both complete and well informed. From these, we know that the production was modernized in 1986, and that it was rebranded as “fruitier, lighter, and less bitter.” So at first glance, it would seem that Lillet is simply lying, as they have every financial reason to do so.

But as it turns out, it’s not as easy as all that: apparently, there were at one point two different recipes, a “dry export” version and an “extra dry,” in addition to some confusion with a vermouth called Lillet, and blah blah blah. Erik over at Savoy Stomp has made a project of this somewhat tepid controversy, and he explains it in better detail than I ever could or would, if you’re interested, here.

What I know is how it tastes, which is pretty damn good. I don’t really care if they changed it or not.

What we have is two similar but different products, which is not like uncharted territory or anything. Make the drink with both. Whichever one you like better? That’s the one to use.

The Styles & Tastes:

They treat their bottles pretty much the same down the line. Each is 85:15 wine: liqueur, each oak aged for 9 months.

Lillet Blanc
85% white Bordeaux wine (80% Semillon, 15% Sauvignon Blanc, 5% Muscadel)
15% fruit liqueur (85% orange liqueur, 15% stone fruit liqueurs)

Very bright, very citrus-forward. The orange combines wonderfully with the white wine, giving sweet orange and a light bitter balance. This is considerably lighter than Cocchi Americano, and distinctly evokes wine (sometimes the wine flavors are infused right out). The brand ambassador suggested we take it on ice with a lemon or orange peel, which sounds like an excellent idea to me.

Lillet Rouge
85% red Bordeaux wine (80% Merlot, 15% Cabernet Sauvignon, 5% Cabernet Franc)
15% fruit liqueur (85% orange liqueur, 15% stone fruit liqueurs)

The rouge was the big shock to me, and my clear favorite of the day (Amanda commented that this is frequently the men’s favorite). The rouge is different from the other two, and should be treated as such: I’d serve it chilled but keep it away from ice. It’s powerful with big red-wine fruit and tannins, which is only intensified by the sweetness. Pungent, powerful, beautiful apertif. I bought a bottle and Vikki and I killed it in like 3 days.  Like the others, it is extremely wine-y, and as such is somewhat difficult to mix — I haven’t yet made something I like better than just sipping it on its own — but taken neat, chilled, with lemon peel or without one, it’s wonderful.

Lillet Rose
85% wine (mixture of all the grapes, but mostly white)
15% fruit liqueur (85% orange liqueur, 15% stone fruit liqueurs)

The youngest child, and the favorite of most people at the tasting. Firm, bright, and textured, the Rose has flavors all its own — strawberries, stone fruit, grapefruit — while remaining not too sweet to be refreshing. Take it as you would the Blanc — on ice, kept light, maybe with bubbles. It’s marvelous on crushed ice. For some reason I want to mix it with watermelon, which sounds mildly redundant but almost inescapably delicious.

Reserve Jean de Lillet (vintage)
Same genealogy to the Blanc

This one is aged in French Oak for 12-16 months compared to 9 for the others. I’ve literally never seen it in the wild (they only make like 1000 bottles or something) but grab one if you see it: it’s oakier, richer, and sweeter. A little oxidized. Tastes like a Sauternes. Delicious.

BONUS TASTING:

Someone at our table asked, “What’s the difference between Dubonnet (another French, red-wine based, quinine-containing apertif) and Lillet Rouge?”

Dubonnet is sweeter and way more oxidized. The Lillet is powerful with tannins and fresh grapes, while Dubonnet evokes port, all dried fruit, figs and raisins, and is textured, a bit more bitter with quinine. And now you know that.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Rebecca Zearing permalink
    April 8, 2013 6:18 pm

    I absolutely love this information.  Great job as usual.  Regards.  Going to seek some..

    ________________________________

    • April 11, 2013 8:50 am

      Thanks again.

      Do try the rouge. I’m looking into case prices for my apartment.

  2. April 15, 2014 10:05 am

    Wow, words fail to express how I impressed I am by this post!

    Keep up the great work… and your terrific turns of phrase.

    • April 16, 2014 12:53 pm

      Thank you very much! Thanks for reading, and I promise I’ll keep writing.

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