Lillet: Licensed to Chill

Lillet: Licensed to Chill

Happy hour may be an American invention, but credit for the civilized ritual of downing a pre-dinner drink or two must go to the French, who came up with the notion of l’heure de l’apéro—aperitif hour—long before the first modern cocktail was shaken or stirred. Think back to the late 19th century, when the denizens of fast-urbanizing France sought a quantum of alcoholic solace at the end of a hard working day. Many of them (probably too many, to be honest) chose to imbibe a recently invented anise-based drink called absinthe—nicknamed la fée verte, or green fairy, for its color—that rapidly became a popular mind-bender.

But not everyone in fin-de-siècle France wanted to join Toulouse-Lautrec and his cohorts of the demi-monde under the table at the Moulin Rouge. So they turned to other libations, some of which they imagined (or were led to believe) would not only do them some good but also whet their appetites.

Thus was born the tonic wine apéritif—a name derived from the Latin verb aperire, meaning to open—that served as an aromatic and appetite-arousing prelude to the evening meal. Aperitifs came in a multitude of flavors but were essentially alcohol-laced delivery systems for various elixirs and allegedly beneficial potions including quinine, a substance derived from the bark of the Peruvian cinchona—or quina-quina or kina-kina—tree, whose medicinal properties included the prevention and treatment of malaria.

Tonic wines based on quinine were known as quinquina whereas those that relied on wormwood to impart bitterness were called vermouths (from the German wermut for wormwood). The northern Italians were making proto-vermouths as early as the 18th century, but quinquinas only became popular in the 19th century when the therapeutic virtues of quinine were better known.

Seventeenth-century Jesuit missionaries in Peru first learned the use of cinchona bark for treating fevers, and introduced the remedy in Europe. It was adopted only slowly, but English apothecary Robert Talbor, whose secret formula using the “Jesuit’s powder” reportedly cured Louis XIV’s son, the dauphin, along with many other privileged patients—cures noted by Madame de Sévigné in her letters. But it was more than a century later, after French pharmacists Pierre-Joseph Pelletier and Joseph Caventou isolated the bark’s active ingredient in 1820, and made their process open-source, that the medical use of quinine became widespread.

Saints and sippers

Aperitifs did not lag far behind. An early brand, launched in 1830 and still around, was St. Raphaël, named by a certain Docteur Juppet who, according to company lore, became blind while researching the formula for his quinine-based drink and recovered his sight after praying to Raphael, the biblical archangel credited with restoring the sight of blind Tobias. Sixteen years later, Parisian pharmacist Joseph Dubonnet inadvertently joined the ranks of apéro producers when he entered a French government competition to make bitter quinine a more palatable prophylactic for the French Foreign Legion in malaria-ravaged Africa. Legend has it that Madame Dubonnet liked her husband’s concoction so much that she started serving it to her friends, who spread the good word far and wide.

Fast forward to 1887 when Bordeaux wine and spirit merchants Paul and Raymond Lillet decided to launch their own aperitif using their local wines and exotic fruits imported from the Caribbean Islands and other far-flung shores. Their golden-hued drink, matured and macerated in oak casks, blended sauvignon blanc, semillon and muscadelle white wines from the banks of the Gironde River near their home base in the village of Podensac, but also citrus liqueurs made from sweet Spanish and North African oranges and bitter green ones from Haiti. And of course there was also the infusion of therapeutic quinine from the kina-kina tree to “bitter” the blend, which is why Lillet in its original incarnation was known as Kina Lillet.

Known, and loved. Kina Lillet made steady gains in what was a fairly crowded marketplace for aperitifs (think not only St. Raphaël and Dubonnet but also Byrrh, Noilly Prat and Suze). It won a gold medal at the 1900 Universal Exhibition in Paris, proclaiming itself “very agreeable to the taste, and one of the most active tonics” that could be “drunk by the most delicate people, at any age, to their great benefit”. During the roaring 1920s and even the straitened 1930s, astute advertising transformed Kina Lillet into a national and international best-seller and sales climbed to record levels. Among its many fans was Wallis Simpson, the ever-exiled and trend-setting Duchess of Windsor, who always traveled with her own bottle and insisted that Lillet always be behind the bar at all her favorite hotels and restaurants.

Bonded spirit

The Duchess may have done the same thing on some of the stately ocean liners that were still crossing the Atlantic regularly in the postwar years, because Kina Lillet became fashionable with Americans who had made the voyage. By the 1950s, when the mad men of Madison Avenue were making whoopee, Kina Lillet was a booming brand in the United States, where a certain Ivar Felix Bryce introduced the drink to his close friend Ian Fleming, then a budding novelist. No surprise then when, in 1953, Fleming sat down at his Jamaican home Goldeneye to write the first James Bond novel, Casino Royale, Kina Lillet was given a cameo role. In the book, Bond asks the casino barman for a dry martini, then spells out his recipe:

“A dry martini,” he said. “One. In a deep champagne goblet.”

“Oui, monsieur.”

“Just a moment. 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. Got it?”

The waiter got it and so, too, did the cocktail cognoscenti. Thanks to Fleming and Bryce, Lillet enjoyed a second career as the key ingredient in the cocktail, which Bond dubbed a Vesper, after his MI6 sidekick Vesper Lynd. (The name was calculated, for some reason, to sound like West Berlin—Fleming’s private joke.)

Alas, product placement then had less influence than it does now and Lillet’s brief appearance in Casino Royale was not enough to slow a gentle decline in sales. The 1962 launch of a red-wine-based version, Lillet Rouge, created especially for the American market, didn’t really spur demand either, nor did dropping the word Kina from the label in 1970. But in 1985 Lillet got a new lease on life when it was acquired by Bordeaux wine négociant Bruno Borie, owner of several wine properties including super second (deuxième cru) Château Ducru-Beaucaillou. Although born and raised in Bordeaux, Borie had never tasted Lillet until he found himself in the Rainbow Room atop New York’s Rockefeller Center watching the sun set over the Hudson River. His American host proposed a Lillet to toast the view and Borie was so impressed he bought the company from the descendants of Paul and Raymond Lillet.

Coming up rose

Borie rejuvenated the firm, modernized the chais, reformulated the recipe (less quinine, more fruit), and generally gussied up the brand, giving it the legs to survive in an era when cocktails and aperitifs seemed to be fading away.

But with cocktail culture now back with a bang, so are drinks like Lillet. More product placement in the latest Bond movies—the remake of Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace—has boosted sales worldwide, and last year Lillet launched a pink version, Lillet Rose (essentially Lillet Blanc with some added Rouge for color) to boost the brand in North America (still the largest market) and Germany (where they are doing their best to catch up). Borie sold Lillet to Pernod Ricard in 2008 and with that giant firm’s marketing muscle now harnessed, hopes for Lillet’s future are looking rosy.

Commercial clout, however, is not the only factor at work. When it comes to aperitifs the big question is whether drinks like Lillet indeed live up to their billing. Do they really awaken and sharpen the appetite? That, dear reader, is for you to judge, but we leave you with the reminder that Hannibal Lecter, cinema’s favorite cannibal, was in the habit of enjoying a Lillet Blanc on the rocks, with a slice of orange, before tucking in. Santé!

Originally published in the July/August issue of France Today

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  • CJT
    2012-08-16 14:36:58
    We were very surprised 4 years ago while taking aperitifs with French friends near Avignon that they had never heard of Lillet, let alone tasted it! In Beaumes de Venise, we visited a wine shop and the proprietor there had never heard of it either. Seems Provence is oriented more to anise drinks, whereas Lillet supposedly appeals to those living closer to Bordeaux. We love both the red and white/yellow Lillets.