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The Vesper, and a quinquina comparison


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.

6 Responses to “The Vesper, and a quinquina comparison”

  1. ethical martini Says:

    hi, glad i found you.thanks for posting the vesper recipe and the useful information about lillet.
    I am going to link bunnyhugs to ethicalmartini. perhaps we can catch up for a martini sometime.

  2. Martini Meanderings « Ethical Martini Says:

    [...] found this neat blog entry from Bunnyhugs, she/he is in New Zealand which is nice, so if you ever read this Bunnyhugs, drop me a line. [...]

  3. Lance Lycett Says:

    One suggestion I’ve seen is to add quinine poweder or a drop of bitters to the Vesper to add the bitterness that was lost when they reformulated it. I’ve tried it both ways and to my mind the more bitter version is superior since the non-bitter version has plenty of alcoholic punch but somehow lacks something.

  4. seamus Says:

    I have heard the same suggestion Lance. I have not got around to obtaining quinine powder and trying it out yet. I am not sure if a drop of bitters would have the same effect, since surely it would really add further aromas more than bitterness. On the other hand, simply adding quinine probably is not a good solution either since it would just add a bitter taste. Presumably the original Lillet was more than just a more quinine-heavy version of the present stuff? Who knows though. . .

    It would be great if somebody did some reverse engineering and came up with a formula for recreating it.

    The other point is that in the past there were multiple versions of Lillet. It seems there was a standard Lillet and a Kina Lillet (the more bitter version) – and probably some more besides those.

    So I guess the current reformulated version of ‘ordinary Lillet’ is extremely different to the old Kina Lillet. Oh well. . .

  5. Bond, James Bond Says:

    Vesper.The correct recipe
    3 Tanqueray Gin 100%
    1 Vodka 100%
    1/2 Kina Lillet
    Champagne goblet.
    Shake over ice
    Pour and add a long thin slice of lemon peel
    No Kina Lillet?
    try Lillet white & dash of Angostura,
    or Lillet white & a spot of China Martini
    or Cochi Americano

  6. Mickey Says:

    Suggest you substitute Cochi Americano for white Lilet next time you make a vesper. It is said that Cochi Americano is closer to the Kina Lilet formula of years gone by. Modern Lilet is less bitter and has a more orange and citrus taste.

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