The first time I drank Lillet was with a friend over dinner at Andre Soltner’s famed Lutèce restaurant, the Manhattan mecca of French dining. At that time, Soltner’s Alsatian inner sanctum was one of the toughest dinner tickets in town.
I had called three weeks ahead for the reservation, and not wanting to be late, remember the feeling of directing our cab driver to, “249 East 52 nd Street! Lutèce! Tout de suite! “ Not daring to be late for our reservation, we arrived at the modest East 52nd Street townhouse 45 minutes early, which gave us time for a quick drink or three in the cramped street-level Lutèce bar. The barman directed us to a petite metal table and asked, “Would you care for a cocktail?” And that was when my brain froze.
Would I care for a cocktail? Hmmm … Was it a trick question? Would I care for a cocktail? Would I care for a cocktail? Would I care for a cocktail? For the better part of the past few years, I’d gotten comfortable uttering a simple, three word request to bartenders: Rolling Rock, please. But, would I care for a cocktail?????
My friend, who’d attended private schools and had thus learned to deal with riddles like, “Would you care for a cocktail?” sprung to the rescue. He uttered three words, and they weren’t “Rolling Rock, please.” He said, “Lillet. Rocks. Orange.” The bartender jumped into action. Wow. Little orange rocks? That’s what I thought I’d heard. But no. My sophisticated friend had spoken in bar code and ordered Lillet, on the rocks, with an orange slice. “Make it two!” I said, in my own suave manner.
Since that night—the night of my dinner with Andre—Lillet has come to my rescue often. Especially in fancy restaurants and bars and especially in France. Want to earn the respect of French waiters and barmen? Order a glass of Lillet as an aperitif. It works every time. Don’t order Rolling Rock.
Lillet is a French aperitif created by Paul and Raymond Lillet in 1887 in Bordeaux. It’s been made in the tiny town of Podensac ever since. Lillet comes in two forms: blanc (white) and rouge (red). And although Lillet Blanc is more popular than Lillet Rouge, the latter is a little sweeter. Chilled and served straight up, Lillet Rouge is a smart, sophisticated alternative to White Zinfandel.
Both versions of Lillet are blends of wines (85 percent) and fruit liqueurs (15 percent). Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon grapes are used to make Lillet Blanc, while Lillet Rouge is made with Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. The exact formula is a well-kept secret, but fruits and fruit peels are cold-macerated in pure distilled spirits (many say Armagnac brandy) for several months and then blended and aged in oak barrels for a year or so. The result is an unusually refreshing aperitif that isn’t quite like drinking wine and isn’t quite like drinking a liqueur.
There are many Lillet cocktails to be found in bar guides, including the James Bond martini from Casino Royale. But the simplest way to enjoy Lillet Blanc is on the rocks with a slice of orange or orange zest. Lillet. Rocks. Orange.