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What Is Lillet and Why Do Bartenders Love It So Much?

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Rosé season? More like Lillet season. Just kidding—there’s room for both in the refrigerator.

For the uninitiated, Lillet (pronounced lee-LAY) is a French aromatized aperitif wine made with a blend of Bordeaux grapes and fortified with a blend of citrus liqueurs. There are three varieties to choose from: Lillet Blanc (made with Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon grapes), Lillet Rosé (a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Sémillon grapes) and Lillet Rouge (Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon).

Lillet’s 17% alcohol by volume (abv) is higher than a typical glass of wine, but it’s easy to stretch out and use in cocktails.

Vesper Martini
The Vesper Martini / Alamy

Vesper Martini (shaken, not stirred)

“I just love the versatility of it,” says Trey Ledbetter, beverage manager of The Betty in Atlanta. “It’s sweet, but not over the top, it’s got just a touch of bitterness from quinine, and it’s just a really flexible product to use. I mean, it’s just good stuff.”

Traditionally made with vodka, gin and the (now retired) Lillet Kina, the Vesper is James Bond’s drink of choice in Casino Royale. Ledbetter uses Lillet Blanc in The Betty’s version of a Vesper martini.

“It’s just there to provide more body. It brings a sweetness to it, helps pull out the gin and it helps balance it out,” says Ledbetter.

Spritzes, bien sûr

The beauty of Lillet, though, is that while you can use it to punch up a boozy drink like the Vesper, it sings in a mellow low-ABV spritz. This is the preferred use of Lillet for Lauren Trickett, a Los Angeles based bartender and Lillet brand ambassador.

“A spritz is probably my go-to just because when you come home from work, or if you’re having people over, I love having something that’s two or three ingredients, and whatever garnishes are available,” says Trickett. “It makes it easy.”

You can keep the spritz as simple as you like or dress it up. Trickett combines Lillet Blanc and tonic or soda water. “If I’m feeling splurge-y, I’ll do Lillet and soda with some sparkling wine on top,” she adds. Her specific garnishes or additions will change with the seasons so, with summer coming up, mangoes and pineapples will soon make appearances in her spritzes.

A Lillet spritz
A Lillet spritz / Photo courtesy of Lillet

Try infusing it

If you like to get funky with homemade infusions, Trickett suggests playing around Lillet Blanc, which is more of blank slate than, say, Lillet Rouge, which has tannins to compete with.

“Lillet Blanc is a really beautiful, open canvas for adding different herbs such as rosemary and chamomile. Different teas also work really well,” says Trickett.

Lillets can also be used to make a fat wash, which essentially means letting the wine soak up the fats, oils and essences of additions that feature those elements, like nuts. Trickett uses unsalted pistachios.

“To me, it kind of takes on that honey character. Because Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon wine are the grapes in Lillet, which already has sort of a honey characteristic. So, adding pistachios to that just kind of, to me, creates a baklava-esque cocktail in that bottle,” she explains. Let them sit in the bottle for 18 hours at room temperature before straining.

If you want something fruitier, Ledbetter suggests throwing in some apple slices. Or, “even a lime peel to add some more like citrusy notes,” he says.

Use Lillet Rosé in a Paloma

A Paloma, which traditionally combines Tequila, lime juice and grapefruit soda, screams summer, and Lillet Rosé can be used for a playful take. Instead of the traditional two ounces of Tequila, Trickett will reduce it to one ounce and add two ounces of Lillet Rosé before adding lime juice and seltzer or grapefruit soda.

“The nice thing about the Lillet Rosé is that it adds the orange and all the sweetness from the fruit liqueurs in there,” she says. “You could add honey, but I honestly don’t have a big sweet tooth. So, I like it on the drier side,” says Trickett.