In the small town of Podensac just south of Bordeaux, the story of Lillet (pronounced lee-LAY) begins with two brothers: Paul and Raymond Lillet. Throughout their lives the Lillet brothers earned a living working as traders in fine wines, liqueurs, and spirits. As time went on, the two developed a new interest in distilling spirits, which led them to create the La Maison Lillet company in 1872. At its start, the Maison’s primary focus was on producing fruit liquors. However, 15 years later and with the introduction of Pierre (Raymond Lillet’s grandson) to the family business, La Maison Lillet began producing Kina Lillet, the brand’s first liqueur distinctly made with white wine from Bordeaux.
Though the coming years would bring a roller coaster of fame and popularity to the brand, there continues to be an intriguing and exciting feeling around this one-of-a-kind alcoholic beverage. But being a family-owned distillery, Lillet remains a mystery to those on the outside. Luckily for VinePair readers, Lillet brand ambassador, Lauren Trickett, holds the key.
Today, Lillet has become a staple for craft bars and home bar carts, and with the rise of spritz cocktails in the United States it’s not hard to see why.
Here are 11 more things you should know about Lillet.
Lillet is an atypical aperitif.
Lillet falls into a very specific category of beverage, aromatized wine-based aperitif. This style of aperitif is specifically classified to differentiate it from other wine-based aperitifs such as vermouth, because they are made with aromatized wine. Although related to vermouth, aromatized wine-based aperitifs are distinctly flavored with botanicals including herbs, spices, and fruits, but typically do not contain wormwood or the wormwood-like flavors associated with vermouth. Lillet uniquely has no herbs and is instead predominantly fortified with orange cordials.
Lillet shares an ingredient with tonic water.
Though it is made with white wine and flavored with fruit liquors, the bitter flavor and the Kina namesake of the original 1887 release come from its main ingredient: quinine. At the time, quinine was used as a medication to treat malaria.
Derived from the bark of the Peruvian cinchona tree, quinine’s unique taste is the flavor component of tonic water — and aromatized wine-based aperitifs like Lillet. In fact, aromatized wine-based aperitifs with quinine, like Lillet, are known as “quinquina” in France.
Lillet is a key component to James Bond’s signature cocktail.
Released in 1953, “Casino Royale” was the first James Bond novel. It’s here that the Vesper Martini was created. Per the novel the original recipe is as follows: “Three measures of Gordon’s, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it’s ice-cold, then add a large thin slice of lemon-peel.” The cocktail was named after leading Bond girl, Vesper Lynd, and became the famous agent’s signature cocktail throughout the many novels and movies in the years to follow. Though it’s not impossible to make it exactly like the original, today’s Vesper recipe still includes Lillet Blanc for that signature taste.
The original recipe was discontinued.
Despite the success of the original Vesper cocktail, Kina Lillet was discontinued in 1986 following the brand’s 1985 recipe reformulation, which reduced the amount of quinine and sugar in order to improve taste quality. With the new formula and rise of quinine-based aperitifs, the word Kina was dropped from the name in order to separate Lillet from other brands using quinine on the market. Not only did the recipe change enhance the beverage’s balance between bitterness and sweetness, it became the brand’s signature product, Lillet Blanc.
Today, you can taste Lillet three ways.
Today, the Lillet collection comes in three variations: the Blanc, the Rosé, and the Rouge. The Blanc is composed of Semillon, and tasting notes include candied oranges, honey, and pine resin. The Rosé is a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Sémillon, and purports aromas of berries, orange blossom, and grapefruit. And the Rouge is a blend of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, with notes of ripe dark fruits, fresh oranges, berries, vanilla, and delicate spices, according to Trickett. Each variation is crafted from a blend of 85 percent Bordeaux-region wines and 15 percent macerated liqueurs such as citrus liqueurs, and blended in French oak barrels to age like any other Bordeaux wine.
It’s great to cook with!
Lillet can be used in recipes as any respective white, red or rosé wine would be. Not sure how to crack that code? Trickett suggests using Lillet Blanc for caramelizing onions. The infused orange notes will add a unique flavor for French onion soup or dip. While the Rouge would make a great substitute for coq au vin or red wine sauces. All three variations can be used interchangeably to make desserts like popsicles or sauced fruits for pastries and baked items.
Lillet Rosé was released 35 years after the originals.
The variations of Lillet Rouge and Lillet Blanc have been around for quite some time, with the Rouge being created in 1962, and the Blanc in 1986. However, the Rosé variation did not come to formulation until 2011. As a family-run brand, La Maison Lillet distillery had the same master distiller for many years, and the decision and recipe formulation took some time.
Lillet Rosé is a blend of all of the grapes used for the Blanc and the Rouge, but unlike its predecessors it has 11 different cordials making the recipe more complex and the development more time consuming. You can’t rush greatness.
Lillet is aged in oak barrels from the Tronçais Forest.
The Tronçais Forest is prized for its oak trees that are used to make barrels for Cognac and Bordeaux wines. The oak from this forest is known to have a tighter wood grain due to a water deficiency that occurs in the summers. It is also less tannic than other oaks and contains more lignin, which results in a slightly less woody flavor imparted during aging.
Lillet prides itself in being a sustainable brand.
As part of its general practices, Lillet has operated from an environmentally conscious mind frame from start to finish. First, the tankers used to round up the grapes from the vineyards are fueled with bioethanol that reduces CO2 emissions by 90 percent. Then after distilling, 100 percent of the byproduct goes back into compost to be used in areas within 30 kilometers (about 19 miles) of La Maison Lillet, and 97 percent of the waste is recycled. The company also made changes to its packaging, ultimately reducing its carbon footprint by 11 percent.
In 2021, Lillet released a newer, lighter bottle — 110 grams less than its predecessor. “The labels are also bio-sourced, and we now use new lighter shipment cases, which have received no chemical treatment,” a spokesperson told VinePair
Lillet likes to chill.
Like all types of wine, Lillet will start to oxidize as it is exposed to oxygen in the air. But since it is an aromatized wine-based aperitif with a higher alcohol by volume (ABV) than most wine (Lillet contains 17 percent ABV) the process will happen a bit slower than that of an average wine (the ABV range of unfortified wines is 5.5 to 16 percent, with an average of 11.6 percent). That said, it is best practice to keep Lillet stored in the refrigerator to ensure its freshness lasts.
La Maison Lillet is open to visitors.
In Podensac, visitors can walk through La Maison Lillet and view the small town’s landmark production facility where Lillet is made. The Maison offers guided tours through the wine cellars, as well as insight into some of the steps behind the blending process of the aperitif. As with any wine or distillery tour, visitors will also have the opportunity to taste Lillet products.