The Quest for Kina Lillet

There are different types of “Lost Ingredients.”

Some are just gone. They are no longer made. The Pomelo flavored “Forbidden Fruit” liqueur is one of those. The only way to get a liqueur like this is to try to make it yourself.

Some “Lost Ingredients” are still made, but only distributed in relatively small geographic areas, making them difficult to come by. “Swedish Punsch” is one of these. Almost the only way to get it is to travel to Sweden, (or make it yourself.)

The third type of “Lost Ingredient” is the one which is still made, but whose recipe has changed so significantly that it no longer resembles the ingredient which would have been called for in a classic cocktail. In some ways these are the worst. It’s like they are taunting you.

Lillet is one of these. In the 1980s, the company which manufactures it decided to re-tool their “Kina Lillet” product’s flavor to keep up with the times. According to their, (strangely informative,) website, the product was renamed “Lillet Blanc” and made, “fresher, fruitier, and less bitter.” Well, that is OK, unless the cocktail you are making with it is depending on it being relatively sweet and somewhat bitter.

To backup a bit and explain what Lillet actually is… Lillet is a fortified wine flavored with spices and bittered, like Tonic Water, with Quinine. The name for this type of fortified wine is “Quinquina.” Both Lillet and Dubonnet are Quinquinas, along with other more obscure ones, like St. Raphael.

Cocktail enthusiasts have suggested various ways of getting around Lillet’s reformulation. From adding Quinine powder directly to your drink to creating a quinine tincture and doctoring your Lillet with it.

For a while a cheery bottle had been crowing to me from the aperitif shelf of my local liquor store.

Cocchi Americano.

Cocchi Americano.

How can you resist a label like that? Eventually, I gave in and bought a bottle of Cocchi Aperitivo Americano, not really knowing what to expect. There wasn’t much information about it in on the web or on the bottle.

When I opened it, I was interested to discover it was similar to Lillet Blanc, except sweeter, spicier, and more bitter. The flavors were primarily cinnamon and citrus, with a pronounced and lingering Quinine aftertaste. I started to get a bit excited. Maybe I wouldn’t have to make a Quinine tincture after all.

Some cocktail experimentation followed, and I discovered nearly every classic cocktail which called for Kina Lillet was head and shoulders better with the Cocchi Aperitivo Americano, than it was with Lillet Blanc. The Corpse Reviver No. 2, which had previously not really thrilled me, was astoundingly eye opening. As was the Culross Cocktail. Even the Vesper, which had been perfectly fine with Lillet Blanc, seemed to perk up with that little bitter touch in the finish.

I presented the Cocchi Americano to some friends. They were a bit less enthusiastic. “Tastes like warm Vermouth,” they said. Perhaps I should have chilled the bottle. I went on to them, as I am wont, about the subtle citrus notes, and bracing Quinine aftertaste. Still not much interest. Somewhat disheartened, I presented my findings on eGullet. Apparently, my enthusiasm was enough to convince at least one person to try it. Fortunately, that one person was also able to try it against a well preserved bottle of vintage Kina Lillet, and pronounced, “The Cocchi Aperitivo Americano comes close to the “bitter” (kina) Lillet”.

Wow!

A few more people have tried the Apertivo Americano since, and all agree that it makes a superior Corpse Reviver No. 2.

33 thoughts on “The Quest for Kina Lillet

  1. This is damn exciting news! I didn’t know until this post that the Lillet Blanc was reformulated. Now I must track down a bottle of the Cocchi! So. Excited.

    Oh, and I’ve been making a taste-alike of Forbidden Fruits – A week ago I strained out the imbuing ingredients. This week-end I’ll filter it and begin the aging. The aroma is quite intriguing. I have never tasted the real deal, so I won’t be able to compare.

    Hopefully it will be ready and waiting should you visit Portland.

  2. Rats, I guess I should have warned them before I wrote about it… I’m sure they’ll get it back in stock at Plump Jack or could order it at K&L.
    Anyone find any? I’m curious what others think about it, especially its merits in a Corpse Reviver.

  3. This stuff is pretty elusive. K&L has been out since at least middle of Feb, John Walker’s website doesn’t list it at all, and Plumpjack doesn’t mail order, as far as I can tell. The sole importer is in Oakland, so my query is ‘Where can I send someone in the East Bay to pick me up a bottle?’ Obviously, they could cross the Bay if necessary, but I want this to be as easy as possible for them. Thanks.

  4. Only just heard about this stuff. . . Damn.

    Lillet has been a bit of a disappointment for me. I was so excited to get my hands on a bottle a few months back, and while I have enjoyed it I found it really lacked bite. Don’t think I’m going to be able to get Cocchi Americano in New Zealand.

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  11. Today I bought a bottle of Cocchi Aperitivo Americano at Ledger’s Liquors in Berkeley (www.ledgersliquors.com). Vespers here I come!

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  13. Thank you for trying, even if your friends don’t appreciate it.

    The Cocchi Barolo Chinotto is another aperitif wine that you ought to look into. Plenty of bitter. Almost as if the folks at Cocchi have reverence for the past.

  14. I tried the Cocchi Americano in Seattle at Vinum Importing & Distributing’s trade show. Recently, WA state liquor laws changed and spirits are now sold in privately owned and operated retail stores (versus state stores). Vinum hired a guy who knows his cocktails and he sourced this for distribution. I tasted and instantly loved it. Glad to find these comments and I might just look into distributing this product myself (I’m in the business). Will update here if I am successful in this endeavor.

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  18. Kina Lillet is still around– it’s just called Lillet Blanc now. It is as bitter as ever and still contains the same amount of quinine– making it the closest thing to Kina Lillet available because it IS Kina Lillet. The owners just took “Kina” out of the title due to marketing relvance (see: “malaria epidemic”).

    • Hi Amanda,

      I am aware that it is the current company line that Lillet has only ever produced something like the current Lillet Blanc, however that contradicts much of what had been written about Lillet up until relatively recently.

      For example, the Lillet website contains a timeline which goes as follows:

      1872 Company founded
      1887 Lillet formula created
      1895 Lillet launched in Bordeaux
      1895 In the US and West Indies “Lillet Export Double Quinine” marketed as a tonic wine
      1909 Two products available in Europe, Kina Lillet and Sauternes Lillet
      1920 “Lillet Dry” created and introduced in England, “to suit English tastes, especially when mixed with gin.”
      1962 Lillet Rouge created
      1985-86 Lillet modernized its manufacturing facilities and Lillet Blanc reformulated, “…fresher, fruitier, less syrupy, less bitter…”

      In addition, this website has a detailed, and seemingly well informed history regarding the product, which states:

      http://www.newbordeaux.com/documents/lillet.html

      “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%.”

      In addition, no one less than David Embury states, “My own favorite French vermouth today is Lillet (pronounced lee’lay) made by Lillet Freres of Podensac, France. Do not confuse it with the Lillet aperitif made by the same company and originally sold under the name of Kina Lillet.”

      And goes on later to say, “In commenting on Lillet vermouth, I warned not to confuse this brand of vermouth with the aperitif wine, originally known as Kina Lillet but now called simply Lillet. If, by accident, you get a bottle of the wine instead of the vermouth, what do you do with it? Well, here are a few of the old-time recipes using Kina Lillet. I definitely do not recommend any of them.”

      In addition a friend of mine on the eGullet forums has turned up a book, in French, solely devoted to Lillet with passages like the following:

      “It looks like there is an entire book devoted to Lillet that covers the 1862-1985 timeframe (in French). According to the book, Kina-Lillet was originally created under the name “Amer-Kina”. The book describes how the formula was adapted to the taste of the public in the early 1900s (“originally it was more bitter, but ladies would not drink it”), with an adjustment to its quinine content and resulting bitterness. It later mentions that two different formulas were available at some point, the “dry export” (English formula) and an “extra-dry” version that is more recent. Somewhere else it mentions that both the original formula (aperitif classique) and the English formula (Lillet goût anglais) were both served at the Cafe de la Paix in Paris in 1938 depending on the clientele.”

      “English-style Lillet (“goût anglais”) marketed in England differs from the product consumed in France. « In France we need the kina to have a little more substance and to be a little sweeter in order to withstand the mixtures that consumers unfortunately require to consume our product, because it is quite obvious that a gourmet would never blend our Kina with anything; in England we are told that our Kina is drunk with gin as a cocktail. »”

      • Erik, I have really enjoyed your great cocktail blogging over the last several years– I think I got my own copy of the Savoy book about the same time you did, but went skipping through it in a much less methodical manner than you proposed!

        I ran across your Cocchi Americano post today as I was searching for a source in the New Haven area– I can get plenty of it here in MSP (and I do… I REALLY do!), but my pal there has yet to track down a bottle, and I want to bring some along on my visit this weekend.

        I adore CA, and have turned on quite a few others, most recently at a kind of vintage cocktail class (I was auctioned off at a non-profit’s benefit) where the Corpse Reviver #2 tied with the Mai-Tai (with Routin 1883′s excellent orgeat). Everyone who wanted to sniff it just lit up at the fragrance of the freshly-opened bottle… could it be that the experience with your under-impressed friends (4 years ago) might have been with a bottle which had been open a while? And yes, it should always be served cold, I think– I keep it in the fridge, but when having it straight, have it on the rocks (sometimes with a shot of soda).

        But it’s your wonderfully thorough explanation of Lillet’s evolution which made me write today. Thanks a million for that, esp. the lengthy bit from the French book. I’d known about the re-formulation from years ago (my introduction to Lillet was in the early 80′s, along with San Rafael and Punt e Mes), but had mis-recalled it being for the American market, not les Anglais!

        Now I’d like to know a bit more about how the glorious Cocchi Americano became “Americano.” I suppose it’s just another example of the curious application of “American” to all sorts of Euro foods. My favorite was in Verdun, France, where a food truck outside the hotel was serving “Sandwich Americain”: a baguette stuffed with lobster, mayonnaise and french fries. Apparently it’s most often found with ground beef rather than lobster in other regions, but it’s the fries IN the sandwich that makes it so “Americain”… and so mystifying to actual Americans!

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