Tales From The Top Shelf: Lillet Blanc

Looks rather dreamy, doesn't it?
Looks rather dreamy, doesn't it? Photo by Kate McLean

In 1872, before cracking open a bottle of the local Bordeaux, French brothers Raymond and Paul Lillet must have thought to themselves, "we should make a pre-drinking drink out of these badass grapes?"  Or better known as, an aperitif.  A lightly boozy, lightly bitter sipper to make the stomach rumble.  A foreplay of sorts to the long night of dining ahead.  Gentlemen, that was a good idea.

Lillet Blanc is an aperitif made of Bordeaux grapes, orange citrus macerated in liquor, and quinine aka the flavor in tonic. A few years prior to the production of Lillet Blanc, in southeast France, Bonal Gentiane Quina was created in a similar fashion.  While both are sometimes thrown into the vermouth category, it's not quite the same flavor.  Lillet Blanc was created in 1986 to replace the original Kina Lillet as a sweeter, less bitter version. During the roaring twenties, Kina Lillet was kind of the sexiest thing to be holding at a party.  Bond, James Bond actually prefers it to dry vermouth in the original recipe for a Vesper.

Lillet Blanc, best served ice-cold, has a nice balance of floral fruit sweetness finished with a hint of tonic. Whether served simply on the rocks with a twist of zest or as a secret ingredient in a cocktail, Lillet Blanc is good wild card bottle to have on the cart.

Here is the skinny on the Bordeaux wine region in France: It's the best. A LOT of people say it's the best. Château Margaux, Petrus, Château Lafite Rothschild— these big swinging vineyards fetch the biggest prices and there's a reason for that.  The climate, the soil, the Merlot, the tradition.  Lillet Blanc uses the Sémillon grape, which alongside Sauvignon Blanc is the most important white varietal in Bordeaux. 
The Feng Shui cocktail pairs Lillet Blanc with Zephyr Gin, mint, cucumber, basil and citrus. - PHOTO BY TATE DRENNEN
The Feng Shui cocktail pairs Lillet Blanc with Zephyr Gin, mint, cucumber, basil and citrus.
Photo by Tate Drennen

Lillet Blanc is 85 percent a blend of Bordeaux wine and 15 percent fruit macerated liquor.  Both sweet and bitter oranges sourced from Turkey, Spain, Morocco, and Haiti, and their peels are macerated in liquor separately.  When deemed ready by the cellar master, the two types of macerations are then blended with carefully selected wines and rested in oak barrel which allows the nuances in aromatics to settle.  Afterwards, that cuvee, or batch, is blended again in order to nail a consistent flavor profile.  It takes about six months from start to finish. 

Bartenders love using Lillet Blanc in cocktails because it's just subtle enough to pique curiosity.  Tate Drennen, who hops between The Crown Plaza Hotel, Ayva Center, and Christian's Tailgate uses it in a cocktail he calls "Feng Shui."  A martini featuring Zephyr Gin, muddled mint, cucumber, basil, and fresh citrus.  Sounds Houston afternoon perfect. 
KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.