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Quick Overview of Lillet
Lillet is an apéritif made from a blend of Bordeaux wines, and citrus liqueurs, as well as the liqueur of a bark which contains quinine, which gives it a bitter edge.
The pronunciation of 'Lillet' is somewhat counter-intuitive if you have studied some French, because you expect it to sound like 'lee/yay'. In French, a 'll' in the middle of a word normally sounds like a 'y'. The company is quite adamant that the pronunciation is 'lee/leh' and even changed the spelling IN FRANCE at one time to one 'l' - 'lilet', until everyone got the message, when they changed it back again.
Make sure you get the 'i' right, because if you fudge it, it can sound like 'le lait', which means 'the milk' in French.
The history of Lillet
Lillet was created in 1872 in the village of Podensac in Bordeaux by brothers Paul and Raymond Lillet. The original was made with a dry white wine (using the grapes favored in the making of the sweet Sauternes. Podensac is a stone's throw away from the Sauternes village). It is flavored with citrus liqueurs which include sweet orange, green orange, and bitter orange, with a dash of quinine which is obtained from cinchona bark from Peru.
This original formulation fell under the category of 'quinquina' drinks. Quinquina is the French word for the cinchona bark from which the quinine is obtained. (Dubonnet is another example of a 'quinquina'). The French pronunciation of quinquina (ka~/kee/nah) makes the original name 'Kina Lillet' more understandable.
After the 1930's, the company seems to have dropped the 'Kina' from the name, although Kina Lillet continued to be referred to as such, most notably by James Bond Fleming's 1953 book 'Casino Royale'. In 1986, the company reformulated the drink to reduce the quinine and make it less bitter. The sugar was also reduced. The original 'Kina Lillet' no longer exists, although there is a little known drink called 'Reserve de Lillet Blanc' which lies somewhere between the original Lillet and today's formulation.
There are now 3 types of Lillet:
- The original Lillet, reformulated in 1986, also known as 'Lillet Blonde' and 'Lillet Blanc' which is made with dry white wine flavored with citrus and quinine. Serve it on it's own well-chilled (the colder it is, the less the bitterness of the quinine comes forward), or over ice, with a slice of lemon. You can also blend it into cocktails;
- Lillet Rouge (released in 1962) which is based on red wine, and less dry than the original. You serve this like the Blanc, but use orange slices, not lemon;
- Lillet Rosé is a very recent release - it is flavored with berry liqueurs. Great chilled and neat, or over ice, with a splash of sparkling water, if you like.
How to serve Lillet
Lillet is most often served as an apéritif, before meals. The most famous Lillet cocktail is 'The Vesper' invented by James Bond in Casino Royale which is made with gin, vodka and Kina Lillet, but there are many others to try.
There are some inventive recipes using Lillet: Epicurious has a recipe for Lillet Marshmallows, and the inimitable Heidi Swanson from 101cookbooks.com has a recipe for Lillet Buttermilk Shakes, which sound divine.
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