Lillet and the Vesper Cocktail
Lillet is an often overlooked ingredient, while technically it may not be considered a vermouth, like a vermouth it is a aromatized and fortified wine. There are a variety of fruits, herbs, and spices that make up the proprietary recipe for Lillet, one of those spices is quinine, the same ingredient found in tonic water, and this gives an ever-so-slight bitterness to the product. Created in the late 1800’s, it originally had a lot more quinine, but in the mid 1980’s the recipe was modified to produce a more approachable balance of flavors. Lillet comes in both a white (Blanc) and red (Rouge) version. While vermouth manufacturers will use the same (white) wine, just different herbs and spiced to differentiate their white and red vermouths, Lillet uses the exact same spice mixture in both their white and red Lillet, just using a white Bordeaux wine for Lillet Blanc, and a red Bordeaux wine for Lillet Rouge. Originally, Lillet was referred to as “Kina Lillet”, where kina is the Peruvian word for “bark of the cinchona tree”, which is used to produce quinine. Kina was dropped from the name many years ago.
There aren’t many cocktails which call for Lillet, it is more commonly served on the rocks with a twist of lemon, and as such it is a wonderful aperitif. Perhaps one of the most popular Lillet based cocktails, is the “Vesper”, which made its first appearance in 1953 in the first James Bond Novel “Casino Royale”, by Ian Fleming. Here is an expert of where Mr. Bond orders this drink for the first (and only) time:
"A dry martini," he said. "One. In a deep champagne goblet."
"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?"
"Certainly, monsieur." The barman seemed pleased with the idea.
"Gosh, that's certainly a drink," said Leiter.
Bond laughed. "When I'm...er...concentrating," he explained, "I never have more than one drink before dinner. But I do like that one to be large and very strong and very cold and very well-made. I hate small portions of anything, particularly when they taste bad. This drink's my own invention. I'm going to patent it when I can think of a good name."
While Mr. Bond doesn’t indicate if this should be made with white or red Lillet, you can rest assured that it was made with white, since red didn’t exist at that time. However the white Lillet that was available, was the version with a higher quinine level then is available today, so you unfortunately can no longer get this drink made exactly the way James would have had it.