What is Lillet, the aperitif in James Bond's Vesper cocktail?


  • Food
  • Monday, 08 Jul 2019

Lillet Blanc is an essential ingredient in the classic Vesper cocktail. Photo: Michael Cheang/The Star

Back in 2011, I teamed up with Malaysian bartender Amanda Wan to recreate some of the most iconic drinks in pop culture, including the White Russian from The Big Lebowski, the champagne cocktail from Casablanca, and of course, the Vesper, the drink James Bond supposedly invents on a whim in 2006’s Casino Royale.

But since then, something about the Vesper has always bothered me. You see, the original recipe Bond recites in the movie goes: “Three measures of Gordon’s, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake over ice, then add a thin slice of lemon peel.”

Gordon’s gin and vodka were easy enough to get at the time. Not so the Kina Lillet, which is an important enough ingredient that Bond specifically asked for it.

So, what is Kina Lillet anyway? Recently, Lillet was finally officially launched in Malaysia, I decided that this was as good an opportunity to answer that question once and for all.

Because of its association with the Vesper (which is often referred to as a Martini-styled drink), people tend to think Lillet is a vermouth. This is a misconception – Lillet is actually a kind of aperitif known as “tonic wine”, because it contains quinine.

Yes, you read that right – quinine, the medicine that was once used to cure and prevent malaria, and also the main ingredient in tonic water. Quinine is derived from the bark of the South American cinchona tree, known also as “kina kina”, hence the name “Kina Lillet”.

Lillet Blanc is an essential ingredient in the classic Vesper cocktail. Photo: Michael Cheang/The Star
Lillet Blanc is an essential ingredient in the classic Vesper cocktail.

Lillet (pronounced “li-lay”) was created in 1887 by Bordeaux wine merchants Paul and Raymond Lillet, who launched their own version of the tonic wine aperitif by blending local wines with fruit liqueurs.

In the 1920s, they created a new product called Lillet Dry in England, a drier aperitif which puts less emphasis on the quinine. Later in the 1960s, they introduced Lillet Rouge, and Lillet Dry was then renamed Lillet Blanc, which is the name it goes by today.

The current Lillet range in Malaysia comprises the Lillet Blanc and the Lillet Rose.
The current Lillet range in Malaysia comprises the Lillet Blanc and the Lillet Rose.

There is a theory that perhaps Bond creator Ian Fleming meant to use Lillet Dry instead of Kina Lillet for the Vesper. Author Kingsley Amis theorises in The Book of Bond that the quinine in the original Kina Lillet would have made the drink far too bitter.

Fleming wrote the first James Bond book, Casino Royale, in 1953, so at the time, it would have been called Lillet Dry in Britain. However, interestingly enough, the official Lillet website states that Lillet was still called Kina Lillet until the 1970s, and quinine was only completely taken out of the Lillet recipe in 1985 (but later put back in).

Therefore, having Kina Lillet in the Vesper does make sense. James Bond orders the drink in Casino Royale in France after all, so Lillet there would probably have still been known as Kina Lillet.

Anyway, what is Lillet today? There are two expressions available in Malaysia – Lillet Blanc and Lillet Rose.

Difford’s Guide describes Lillet Blanc as such: “A blend of 85% Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc wine with 15% fruit liqueurs made by macerating sweet oranges from Spain, bitter oranges from Haiti, green oranges from Morocco and quinine from Peru in brandy for several months. The blend is aged in Yugoslav oak casks for a year prior to bottling.”

The Lillet Rose, on the other hand, was Lillet’s first new product since Lillet Rouge in 1962 when it was launched in 2012. It is made from a blend of white Grand Cru Bordeaux grape varietals blended with liqueurs and matured in oak casks.

Serving Lillet with soda or tonic is a good way to try the spirit, as the bubbles in the soda accentuate the floral, fruity notes in the wine.
Serving Lillet with soda or tonic is a good way to try the spirit, as the bubbles in the soda accentuate the floral, fruity notes in the wine.

Taste-wise, Lillet Blanc is a lovely aromatic wine with honeyed, citrus fruits, stone fruits, and even minty herbal notes on the nose and palate. The Rose is slightly fuller-bodied, with sweeter, floral notes.

In terms of serve, Lillet can be drunk in several ways. Pacific Standard Bar (PST) at Alila Hotel Bangsar in Kuala Lumpur actually has several ways of serving the spirit. The simplest serve, of course, is with either tonic or soda water – it’s a good way to try Lillet as the bubbles will help accentuate the floral, fruity notes in the wine.

PST also has a cocktail called the Kokomo, which mixes dry gin, Lillet Blanc, house-made coconut cordial and blackberries for a deliciously tropical, refreshing drink.

Personally, however, my favourite way to have Lillet is still in a Vesper. There is just something about the combination of a good London dry gin with a smooth vodka complemented by the sweet notes of Lillet that makes this a truly elegant tipple fit for a super spy. We may not have Kina Lillet anymore, but I’ll still take a Lillet that way any day.


Michael Cheang is still curious to know what the original Kina Lillet tasted like. Contact him on Facebook, Instagram (@MyTipsyTurvy) or Twitter (@MichaelCheang).


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