An apéritif is like a tender lover — subtle, artful, enticing. As the word implies, it is an appetizer or an opening.
In France, home of many apéritifs, Lillet is the only one produced in Bordeaux. Not surprising then that its base is wine from the same grape varieties — Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and Cabernet Sauvignon — as the region’s celebrated wines. In the next step, mostly citric fruits and orange peels from around the world are steeped in brandy to make a liqueur. The final blend is then made — 85 percent wine, 15 percent liqueur — and aged in wood casks for a year. That is all: There are no added flavors, herbs or spices.
As Bruno Eugène Borie, CEO of Lillet, likes to point out, “Lillet is not a vermouth.” Vermouth is wine-based, but it undergoes so many additions and manipulations — sugar syrup, as many as 50 herbs, plants, seeds and flowers, tannin, pasteurization and other ingredients and procedures — that it is no longer recognizable as wine.
Lillet, on the other hand, is a pure apéritif wine.
Once its time in cask is complete, the pleasure begins. Throughout much of Europe, apéritif time is just before lunch. In the United States, we’re more likely to imbibe before dinner during the traditional cocktail hour. The truth is apéritif time can begin anytime, anywhere on a warm, relaxing day.
Lillet was created in 1887 by Raymond and Paul Lillet. Originally, there was only a white Lillet, and that version, which has the color of golden honey, a floral bouquet and the scent of orange and lime, still accounts for 80 percent of its production. Red Lillet, added in 1962, has hints of vanilla and red berries.
How best to enjoy Lillet? Drink it neat and chilled in a stemmed wineglass. Add a slice of lemon or orange and call it “On ice with a slice.” Or make a Vesper, James Bond’s favorite martini, by shaking 3 ounces gin, 1 ounce vodka and one-half ounce white Lillet over ice, strain it into a martini glass and add a slice of lemon peel.
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