ORIGINALLY WRITTEN FOR FLAVOURS OF FRANCE, MAY 2009
The quote is up on the wall, prominently placed in an attractive leafy courtyard, as soon as you enter the Lillet distillery. Casino Royale, Ian Fleming, 1953: 'Dry martini in large champagne glass, three measures of Booths, one of vodka, one measure of Kina Lillet... shake ... then add zest of lemon.’
Lillet is still made at the original site, where the distillery and cellars have been located since 1872. Its smart red, white and blue building is in Podensac, a village of 3,000 inhabitants that is in the Graves region of Bordeaux, 30km south of the city and around ten minutes from the famous sweet wines of Sauternes. It’s not surprising then, that this classic Bordeaux aperitif is made from a base of dry wine, and that typically the wine is a blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon, but with more emphasis on Semillon – the favoured grape of Sauternes.
The drink was invented by two brothers, Paul and Raymond Lillet, who were distillers producing a range of fruit eaux-de-vies. In the 19th century, Bordeaux was the most important port city in France, and fruits and spices were coming in from all over the world, giving them access to a range of exotic fruits and spices to distill and turn into liqueurs. Five years after setting up the distillery, they came up with the recipe for an aperitif made from the plentiful local wines, mixed with the very fashionable quinine (tonic water had been granted an English patent in 1858, and quinine continued to be seen as a healthful tonic, and pretty much the only treatment against malaria and other fevers, until after World War II), plus a range of fruit liqueurs. As the 20th century got underway, they stopped making the other eaux-de-vie and concentrated just on Lillet Blanc.
The exact recipe remains secret. In all, the drink is 85% wine, and around 15% fruit liqueurs which include a base of sweet oranges from Valencia in Spain, green oranges from Morocco and Tunisia, bitter oranges from Haiti and cinchona bark (or quinine) from rainforests in the Peruvian Andes. Today they get the fruit peels sent in rather than the whole fruit (there was once jam production on site to use the excess fruit), but the cold soaking and maceration is done in their cellars, taking between three and six months.
The popularity of Lillet was at its height in the 1930s, when it sold around 180,000 bottles a year (it is back up to this number today), but after World War II, sales declined as France discovered whiskey and pastis. In the 1960s, the company began making red Lillet, from a base of local red wine. Lillet Rouge is more tannic than the white, more structured and is full of red fruits, almost like a good quality sangria. With this invention, and a resurgence of Lillet Blanc for cocktails in the US, sales began to rise again.
In 1985, Bruno Borie, owner of Chateau Ducru Beaucaillou, bought the business from the Lillet family (some of whom still remained working in the company. Pierre Lillet, the 93 year old grandson of the original owner, and previous cellar master himself, still comes by the offices every day to see how things are going, while other members of the family have long been among Bordeaux’s most important courtiers, or wine brokers).
The first thing Borie did was relook at the recipe of Lillet Blanc and make it fruitier, lighter, less sugary but also less bitter, as he reduced the levels of quinine – to achieve the balance of sweetness and sourness that it has today. A Reserve Jean de Lillet Blanc was also created, that more closely resembles the original recipe, tasting somewhere between a Sauternes and today’s Lillet aperitif. With the new recipe, he relaunched the drink. At the time, sales were 24,000 in France, but when he sold it in 2008 (to the Ricard family of Pernod-Ricard), sales had reached 400,000 in France, with another 400,000 overseas. When it featured in 2006 film version of Casino Royale, where Daniel Craig asking for a martini with Kina Lillet, sales particularly in the US shot up by 20%.
For both red and white, the Lillet team select their wines from across Bordeaux – Sauternes, Graves, the Cotes de Bordeaux, Entre deux Mers and others – through wine brokers, who find samples that match requirements and get those samples sent to Podensac. The ideal base white wine is rich and perfumed, and the red should be soft and round, but well structured, based on the merlot grape. The cellar master then tastes and chooses the best batches, and does the blending himself. Its production mirrors in many ways that of the region’s wine – put into cement tanks on arrival in the cellar, then blended and aged for one year in large oak vats. Before being put into the oak vats, the wine is blended with the 10 fruit-based liqueurs in an operation known here as ‘Le Vinage’.
Production is constant throughout the year, and is made of a blend of vintages, a bit like Champagne, to ensure the taste remains consistent from year to year. A little of the final blend from each batch is kept behind to form the base for the next one. The Reserve wine comes from just one estate, and just one vintage, and is aged in a mix of 400 litre and 225 litre oak barrels for one year (2/3 new, 1/3 one year).
The final drink needs to be served very cold, because that emphasises the fruit aromas rather than the bitterness. As the drink warms, the bitterness becomes more obvious. You can add ice, but should also add a slice of lemon (orange for Red Lillet) so it doesn’t dilute the principal flavours as the ice melts. The finish is dry from the quinine, which is why it is still considered to be fortifying and reviving drink, perfect for stimulating the appetite as an aperitif.
Address: Lillet RN113 Podensac Tel: 05 56 27 41 41 Open for visits every day during July and August. Rest of year by appointment.
One mint leaf
3 drops Angustora bitters
Slice of Lime
Equal quantities of Lillet Blanc and Lillet Rouge
Drop of crème de cassis
Schweppes or Perrier
Slice of Orange
Recipe for Desserts
Peaches with Lillet Blanc (for six)
1 bottle of LILLET Blanc
9 well ripened white peaches
3 sprigs of fresh verveine
3 grains of pepper
Plunge the peaches into boiling water for 30 seconds, then carefully peel them.
Cut them in half and take out the pits. Put the peaches carefully into a large casserole dish and the add first the LILLET, then the verveine, pepper and clove. Leave them to soak for 20 minutes. The take out the peaches and put them in to a separate dish. Leave the juice over a gentle heat to reduce by half, then put it over the peaches and leave to cool for around 2 hours before serving. Tastes even better the next day.