A few weekends ago, I found myself bursting into song — belting out the makeshift lyrics, "I love a Lillet" in the best Ethel Merman impersonation I could muster.
I do love a Lillet (pronounced "lee LAY"). I had my first glass of the apéritif over a decade ago — and it was such a delicious departure from what I usually drink that the details are still fresh in my mind. It was Easter, and I'd arrived at a friend's house for brunch. Her husband handed me a vintage wine glass filled with an intoxicating berry-hued liqueur that he'd topped with club soda. I was expecting to taste red wine, but what I got on my first sip was the taste of spring: something more citrus-y than wine and a bit more bitter and medicinal. That was Lillet Rouge.
A latecomer to the Maison Lillet family, Lillet Rouge first came on the market in 1962, at the behest of American importer Michael Dreyfus. The original apéritif, a white wine and quinine blend, came on the market some 90 years earlier, when Kina Lillet was invented by brothers Paul and Raymond Lillet. They built their empire on a concept first brought to France by Father Kermann, a late 18th-century physician who had worked in Brazil, where quinine was used to ease malaria symptoms. The Lillet brothers, who lived in the Bordeaux wine region of Podensac, entered into the "tonic wine" market a century later, founding their company in 1872, just two years after France's Third Republic was established.
By the 20th century, Lillet was a popular high society drink. It was also a huge hit in Africa, where colonialists and travelers feared the dreaded malaria. The recipe was tinkered with in the 1980s, when scientists at Bordeaux University's Institute of Oenology reduced the sugar content and rebalanced the formula for acidity and sweetness.
Today, Lillet comes in three varietals: Blanc, Rouge, and Rosé, all of which should be stored in the fridge. I haven't experimented enough to tell you whether the quinine content will indeed keep the mosquitoes at bay, but I do know that when the dogwoods start blooming and the azaleas begin to bud, it's time to bring out the Lillet.
While Europeans drink Lillet simply — over ice, garnished with a citrus peel — Americans tend to use the apéritif as a base for fancier cocktails. There's the Vesper Martini, popularized by James Bond in Ian Fleming's novel Casino Royale. The cocktail can be made with vodka and Lillet Blanc, or with a combination of vodka, gin, and Lillet.
Whichever route you choose, shake with bitters and cracked ice, then garnish your drink with a lemon peel. I prefer another Martini variation called the Liberté, which is a less pretentious blend of Lillet Blanc (three ounces), gin (one ounce), and a few dashes of orange bitters. I also recommend the French Connection, a blend of equal parts Lillet Blanc and Cognac, mixed with Angostura, orange bitters, and a few spoonfuls of honey syrup.
I'm not much of a red wine drinker overall, but I do love the Lillet Rouge Tonic, an easy and elegant cocktail. Just fill a wine glass halfway with the apéritif, then top with tonic water and an orange slice. I'm also a devotee of the Bootsy Collins, a cheeky variation on a Tom Collins that I found in the pages of Saveur magazine. Make it yourself by combining two ounces each of vodka and Lillet Rouge, and one ounce each of lemon juice and simple syrup. Mix in a shaker filled with ice, strain, and garnish with lemon wheels.