Lillet Is the Secret Ingredient to Every Good Vesper Martini

This versatile, low-ABV aperitif deserves a place on your back bar.

What Is Lillet Blanc?

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Aromatic, floral, and bright, it’s hard not to love Lillet. It’s summer in a glass, best sipped on its own, spritzed, or as a co-star in boozier beverages, such a Corpse Reviver and a Vesper martini. (Stirred or shaken?) 

“I love Lillet Blanc because it is very refreshing and aromatic, with a pleasant finish,” says Le Bernardin’s Eric Ripert. “It is a perfect aperitif for the hot summer season and it can tolerate a lot of ice.”

What is Lillet?

Lillet comes in three different variations: Blanc, Rosé, and Rouge. Broadly speaking, all call for a base of Bordeaux wine topped up with macerated liqueurs that are then blended and aged in French oak.  

“To make Lillet, similar to any fortified wine, a base wine is infused and flavored with aromatic herbs, roots, and spices,” says Mattie Hansen, bar manager of Piccalilli in Los Angeles. “Then, the alcohol content is raised slightly with a proprietary brandy.” 

The specifics are kept under lock and key (“the complete list of ingredients is a closely-guarded trade secret!” says Hansen), “But we do know that Lillet Blanc is made from a blend of Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc grapes, fortified with fruit liqueurs made from sweet, bitter, and green oranges, and aged in oak for a year before bottling,” she says. Blush-hued Lillet Rosé calls for a Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Sémillon base, while Lillet Rouge sticks to just Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.

What Does Lillet Taste Like?

With Lillet Blanc — the original and arguably the most recognizable of the bunch — “you are going to taste honey, orange peel or blossom, white floral notes, passionfruit, and slight herbal notes like pine,” says Cheyenne Ward, Bar Manager of FARM in Bluffton, South Carolina. 

“It’s light in flavor — think a crisp white wine with citrus on the nose and almost like a very slight sweetness to start with a dry finish,” says Brittany Park, Bar Manager, Brasserie la Banque in Charleston.

Ward finds that Lillet Rosé is a little sweeter than Lillet Blanc and has notes of strawberry, grapefruit, and melon, with some slight citrus notes as well; Lillet Rouge, on the other hand, boasts a deeper, richer taste with notes of orange, ripe berries, vanilla, and baking spices.

Is Lillet Different From Cocchi Americano?

While Cocchi Americano is a completely different drink than Lillet, there’s a deep tie between the two. Bordeaux-based brothers Paul and Raymond Lillet (note the last name) created a product called Kina Lillet in 1872.  

The word Kina refers to quinine, the bittering agent born from the Cinchona tree best known for giving tonic its unique flavor. While today’s Lillet Blanc is slightly sweet and floral, Kina Lillet was quinine-forward and pretty bitter.

In 1953, Kina Lillet made its way into the pop culture vernacular “when author Ian Fleming named it as one of the components of James Bond’s new favorite cocktail in Casino Royale,” says Hansen. The Vesper — gin, vodka, Lillet Blanc, and a lemon twist — became the drink order du jour. 

In 1986, Lillet was reformulated to be less sweet, reducing the amount of quinine in the recipe to appeal to a larger audience.

How Do You Store Lillet Blanc? 

Store your Lillet in the fridge! “Much like vermouth, Lillet begins to slowly degrade as soon as it’s opened,” says Hansen. “Tightly closed and stored in the fridge it should, like most products in the 15 to 20% ABV range, last three to four weeks (but you can always taste-test as it goes!).” 

That said, she finds that as long as the bottle is kept chilled the flavors won’t get bad, but the wine will simply oxidize over time —  and some people like those notes! If you haven’t opened the bottle, keeping it at room temperature is completely fine, though be sure to keep it in a cool, dark place away from direct sunlight, as you would any wine.

Lillet Cocktails to Know

“The go-to for pairing Lillet with a spirit is gin,” Ward recommends. She points to vesper martinis and corpse revivers No. 2 — “both have gin as their primary spirit!”

“Lillet brightens up the gin in a cocktail and brings sweetness to the drink without dulling the flavor of the gin.” She’s keen on it in spritz form too. “A little bit of Lillet Blanc with a sparkling wine is delicious and very refreshing.” (Or, add soda water for a lower-proof cocktail.)

Piccalilli’s Hansen also loves a Bond-ian Vesper, with a 6:2:1 ratio of gin to vodka to Lillet. “Apologies to James though….I prefer mine stirred, stirred, and stirred some more.”

Park prefers small doses in different cocktails, using Lillet Blanc as “as a slight bittering agent with a little floral and citrus notes.”

Ripert doesn’t fuss — he sips it simple, with just a big handful of ice cubes or “mint or basil leaves. Sometimes, I will marinate sliced peaches or apricots in it to serve as a dessert with julienned mint or basil.”

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