I got hold of some Lillet the other day. I really like Dubonnet so had been looking forward to trying Lillet. Dubonnet and Lillet both belong to the ‘quinqina’ category of flavored wines, namely quinine flavored wine-based aperitifs. Dubonnet is red while Lillet is white, though Dubonnet also produces a less well known white version and Lillet also has a red version. The situation is a little like that with vermouth, where vermouth producers typically offer both sweet and dry versions.
Tasting Lillet on its own I found it sweeter than I had expected, and not that different to a fruity white wine. I had been hoping for something a little more assertive. I think Dubonnet remains my favorite of the two. Dubonnet has a medicinal bitterness that is only faintly present in Lillet. Incidentally, while some people describe ‘quinquina’ as similar to vermouth, I don’t think this description is very helpful. To my mind Dubonnet and Lillet are far more gentle than vermouth, meaning those who fear vermouth could consider quinquina. To me, vermouth seems so heavily flavored that the base wine becomes hardly noticeable, while Dubonnet and Lillet place the wine in the foreground with the flavorings as an accent. The flavorings tend to be spicy rather than herbal. Dubonnet makes me think of spiced port, while Lillet resembles a desert wine with a touch of bitter complexity.
The formula of Lillet was changed significantly in the 1980s. Compared to the original the new version is said to be fruitier and less bitter (less quinine?). The Lillet website describes the new version as less ‘syrupy’, so possibly it also has a lower sugar content. The modern Lillet is still pretty sweet though. Perhaps when they say ‘syrupy’ they have something like cough syrup in mind? In that case they could really be saying the new version is less bitter. Anyway, compared to other aromatized aperitif wines (i.e. vermouths or Dubonnet) Lillet comes across as sweet and fruity rather than aromatic or herbal. It could almost pass for a desert wine. The bitterness and aromatics in Lillet sit in the background. Personally I reckon they should think about reworking the recipe again to restore the lost oomph.
Incidentally the formula for Dubonnet also appears to have changed recently. They redesigned the bottle to give it a more modern look and simultaneously shaved a percentage point or so off the alcohol content. I did a comparison between the remains of an old bottle and a freshly opened new one. I have to be honest and say I couldn’t taste any real difference, but it would still be nice if they had left it unchanged. If it ain’t broke, why fix it? However much you rework it, Dubonnet is never going to become Diet Coke – at least I hope not.
There are dozens of Lillet cocktails I want to try, but the obvious first thing was to do like James Bond and make a Vesper! So I did the following. . .
3 oz gin (Bond drank Gordons but I used Tanqueray since the only Gordons in New Zealand is nasty, low-proof stuff)
1 oz vodka (Stolichnaya, what else?)
½ oz Lillet Blanc
Shake over ice and garnish with a lemon twist.
I believe this marks the first appearance of vodka on this blog. I had to go out and buy the vodka specially, so rarely do I have a reason to use the stuff. Stolichnaya is a little sweet, particularly given the already sweetish Lillet. In its defense though it is cheap, genuinely Russian, not distilled from Icelandic glacier water before being filtered through a Javanese volcano or some other bullshit, and has one of the coolest label designs out there. Whatever you may say about the contents of the bottle, the Stolichnaya label is classic communist art. Moscovskaya would have been my first choice if available given that it is a little drier. I guess Bond would have drunk Smirnoff. Still, lets not get too hung up on the finer points of a flavorless spirit.
The vesper is an extremely easy to drink yet high octane martini variation. The alcohol is not exactly disguised, but you don’t sense that you are drinking lots of alcohol in quite the same way that you do with a standard martini. Somebody used to low alcohol drinks will probably taste lots of alcohol when drinking this and exercise caution, but somebody used to the traditional gin and vermouth martini could end up putting these away rather fast. The fruitiness in the Lillet makes the drink eminently shippable and the vodka lightens the gin and gives an impression of the drink being less potent than it really is.
I probably wouldn’t drink these too often but they are a nice thing to have in the rotation.