What Was Root Beer?

Before Charles Hires cemented the flavor profile for commercial Root Beer with his incredibly successful product, what were its origins?

First, as we’ve seen, the gamut of spices and flavorings used in Root Beer were primarily medicinal before they found their way into Root Beer. They were also native to the Americas: Wintergreen from Northeastern America, Sweet Birch from Northeastern America, Sassafras from Southeastern America, and Sarsaparilla from Central America via the Caribbean.

The peoples native to the Americas had traditions of Root and Herb based medicines.

Africans brought to North America, also had their own traditions of Root and Herb based medicinal elixirs.

When French, Spanish, and English settlers came to the Americas, they brought European traditional medicines, but a lot of the ingredients they had been using in Europe were either in short supply or unavailable to them in the Americas.

So for their ailments in the New World, presumably, they turned to the people who were already living here who had some experience with using the native flora and fauna for medicinal purposes.

In addition to the Medicinal ingredients being in short supply, many of the raw ingredients which had been used to produce recreational beverages in Europe were also only available as imports from Europe and the supply lines were not reliable.

The grapes which had been used to make wine in Europe did not grow in America; the types of Grain which had been used to make beer did not grow in abundance; Apple trees which were ubiquitous in areas of England, France, and Spain were non-existent; Domesticated Bee colonies had to be introduced before anyone could make mead…

While the South and Central Americas had more plentiful carbohydrate and sugar sources that allowed them the ability to have surplus to ferment, this was not the case in North America, where the intoxicating substances used for ritual and social purposes were generally smoked or eaten, rather than fermented and imbibed.

In truth, fermentable sugars and carbohydrates were pretty thin on the ground in North America, especially the North Eastern America, until the Sugar and Molasses trade in the Caribbean got up to speed.

In addition, making beer is a bit complicated and takes a while, not the easiest thing to do while you’re busy establishing a new country.

But, habits die hard, and I can see how the quickest route to some sort of alcoholic beverage, ANY sort of alcoholic beverage, would be to take the highly concentrated fermentable carbohydrates of plain sugar, (including Molasses, Maple Syrup, or Birch Syrup,) and turn them into intoxicating beverages with a little yeast. However, I’ve tasted fermented cane juice and it is pretty nasty. The same goes for Sugar and Molasses wine.

It totally makes sense that someone would take spices, herbs, etc. and throw them into their fermented sugar beverages, just to make them remotely palatable. If the herbs are medicinal, well, bonus! At least you know they aren’t poisonous.

And indeed, until the technology of artificial beverage carbonation became commercially viable in mid to late 19th Century America, all yeast carbonated Root and Ginger Beers were at least mildly alcoholic.

Like Chicory or Dandelion used to make imitation coffee, I think Root Beer probably started primarily as a quick substitute for actual beer. Luckily, Charles Hires discovered a formula for the beverage that was not only palatable in desperation, but also enjoyable on its own merits. As a consequence, from the late 19th Century to the Mid 20th Century, Root Beer was the king of soft drinks in America.

Kina Lillet, 2012

Lillet Americano Comparison

Over the last few years, much ado has been made about whether the modern version of Lillet Blanc is the same as the product that used to be called Lillet or Kina Lillet.

I, in particular, have rubbed some people the wrong way by suggesting that old cocktails which call for “Kina Lillet” are more interesting when made with Cocchi Americano. I went so far as to attempt to make my own version of “Kina Lillet” during the brief Cocchi Americano drought of a few years ago.

The Quest for Kina Lillet

Kina Quest 2: Necromancing the Stone

Kina Quest 3: Compare and Contrast

Kina Quest IV: Enuff Iz Enuff

Kina Lillet Clone

Collecting some recent conversations regarding Lillet…

The current Lillet company line is that Lillet has only ever produced a product more or less exactly like the current version of Lillet Blanc, whether it is called Lillet, Kina Lillet, or Lillet Blanc. However that contradicts much of what has been written about Lillet in the past.

For example, the Lillet website used to contain 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, the New Bordeaux website has a detailed, and seemingly well informed
history regarding the product.

Lillet: the classic Bordelais aperitif

Some quotes:

“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.”

“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%.”

One of the keenest points that the Lillet company and their promoters are currently making is that the product now known as Lillet Blanc did not change in the 1980s. Borie did modernize the production facilities for Lillet, but the character of Lillet Blanc did not change at that time. All he did was re-market the product with catch phrases that would appeal to a younger demographic interested in beverages that were “fruitier, lighter, and less bitter”.

However, Lillet in the 1980s isn’t of particular interest to me. I’m more interested in what Lillet might have been like in America before prohibition and in the UK and Europe during prohibition. That’s when most of the drinks I have any interest in were created.

No one less than David Embury states in his 1948 “Fine Art of Mixing Drinks”, “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.”

Embury, 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.”

It seems clear that there were definitely two white Lillet products available in the US when Embury was writing in 1948. I guess the only question is, “which do we have now?” Embury’s favored “Lillet Vermouth”? His despised “Lillet/Kina Lillet”? Or something else?

Along those lines, I remembered there was a quote from Kinsley Amis on the subject of Vesper. Something like, Ian Fleming must have made a mistake in specifying Kina Lillet for the drink. David, from Summer Fruit Cup, was kind enough to track it down for me. It’s from Amis’ “The Book of Bond”.

“The original recipe calls for Kina Lillet in place of Lillet Vermouth. The former is flavored with quinine and would be very nasty in a Martini. Our founder slipped up here. If Lillet Vermouth isn’t available, specify Martini and Rossi dry. Noilly Prat is good for many purposes, but not for Martinis.”

Finally, a friend of mine on the eGullet forums, FrogPrincesse, has turned up a book, in French, solely devoted to the history of the Lillet brand.

Some of her comments regarding the book, “Lillet, 1862-1985: Le pari d’une entreprise girondine by Olivier Londeix”

Lillet Topic on eGullet

“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. »”

These passages present us with another problem. If Lillet was sending a different style of Lillet to England in the 1920s and 1930s and Harry Craddock was bartending at the Savoy in London at the same time, maybe the “English-style Lillet” is the one we should be making the Corpse Reviver (No 2) with!

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter all that much to me whether Modern Lillet Blanc is the same as Kina Lillet from the early part of the 20th Century or the Lillet sold in England in the 1930s. I mean, modern Lillet Blanc is a perfectly fine product and works well in some drinks. However, I happen to prefer Cocchi Americano or Tempus Fugit‘s Kina l’Avion d’Or when having an aperitif or mixing certain classic cocktails. That’s just my personal preference.

Bonus Cocktail Recipe involving neither Kina Lillet nor Cocchi Americano!

Ostensibly, the second most famous cocktail calling for Kina Lillet is Harry Craddock’s Corpse Reviver (No 2). Usually composed of equal parts Gin, Cointreau, Lemon, and “Kina Lillet” with a dash or two of Absinthe, it is a delightful and refreshing cocktail.

The other night, a couple friends were hanging out near my coworker Trevor Easter’s station. He started by making them Bronx variations, but somehow ended up making different variations on the Corpse Reviver (No 2), swapping in different elements for the “Kina Lillet”.

One of the variations caught their fancy enough that they coined a name for it.

Creeping Death.

3/4 oz London Dry Gin;
3/4 oz Cointreau;
3/4 oz Cynar;
3/4 oz Lemon Juice;
1 dash Absinthe.

Shake and strain into a cocktail glass.

Imagine that, a cocktail with Cynar, and I didn’t even come up with it!