Falling in Love with Lillet

Bordeaux vineyards

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Many bottles of ink have been spilled trying to distill the so-called art of living like a French woman into a user’s manual: how to tie a scarf like her, how to inhale croissants and not gain weight, as she does, and even how to raise children the “French way." But, it turns out, there’s more to being a proper Gallic lady than sartorial, gastronomic, and familial sophistication – you also have to learn to drink like the way she drinks in order to be truly French. And for that, you’ll need Lillet.

Photo Credit: Lillet

Popular perception notwithstanding, French drinking does not solely consist of consuming endless carafes of red wine in cafés. The French are enthusiastic and equal opportunity drinkers, relying on an array of beer, wines, and spirits to keep their, well, spirits afloat. But even among equals, some drinks are slightly more French than others. And while I was living in Paris, a particular aperitif, Lillet, came to distinguish itself as the apex of such cocktail hour refinement.  

Lillet is technically an aperitif – a drink meant to be consumed before a meal to whet the appetite. As such, it is perfectly in keeping with the French reverence for long, lingering meals with friends that stretch on into the wee hours of the morning. The closely-kept secret blend of Bordeaux wines and citrus liqueurs produce a crisp, elegant, and slightly sweet flavor that appeals to those who generally find traditionally bitter aperitifs off-putting, making it a unique option for many people.

Bordeaux City
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During my first month in Paris, I noticed Lillet everywhere from chalkboard menus at street cafés in my St. Germain-des-Pres neighborhood to leather-bound lists in restaurants off the Champs-Elysée. Curious, I hopped on a TGV train from Paris to Bordeaux, the region where Lillet has been headquartered since its founding in 1872, to learn more.

The distillery is 30 miles south of the city of Bordeaux, in the small town of Podensac. Arriving mid-morning, I was greeted by Pierre Lillet, who is 98 and a grandson of the founders, Raymond and Paul. Monsieur Lillet greeted me with a taste of the limited edition Jean de Lillet vintage cuvée, and I made a mental note that drinking exceptional alcohol before noon may have a positive correlation with longevity, considering Pierre’s lifestyle.

He and Master Distiller John Bernard Blancheton then walked me around the property, which offered fascinating glimpses into the company’s past, as well as illuminated the process of how Lillet is made today. The company has never employed more than eight people, and its exacting attention to detail is evident in everything from the meticulous care with which the drink is aged to the preservation of its stunning Belle Époque advertisements, which were shown at World’s Fairs all over the globe.

Photo Credit: Elizabeth Nicholas

My trip also afforded me the opportunity to enjoy Lillet as the French do, namely, on a boat off the seaside town of Arcachon, while cooking a proper French dinner at L’atelier des Chefs, and at a trendy bar as the clock crept towards midnight.

I set out from Arcachon with a few other Lillet inductees on a pinasse, a small wooden boat formerly employed by oyster fishermen and now more so by regatta-goers and sun seekers. With chilled Lillet blanc at the ready, the drink was perfect as we sunned ourselves on the deck of the pinasse. Later on, we opened a bottle of rouge to warm up a bit after we’d dropped anchor and jumped in the sea. But it was the rosé that really shone, when, befitting our boat’s origins as a fishing trawler, the most sumptuous plat du mer anyone has ever seen was hauled out for us to enjoy. It’s fair to say that Lillet rosé and oysters farmed from the water you just swam in is an appropriate definition of heaven.

After resting a bit from the day’s excitement at Bordeaux’s historic Hôtel de Sèze, we headed to the legendary L’atelier des Chefs, a cooking school that has been educating the region’s finest chefs for decades. A dapper French chef demonstrated how to prepare salads with seafood pulled from nearby Cap Ferret, followed by a step-by-step instruction of how to perfectly roast chicken. He helped us make fruit parfaits for dessert, topped with cream and a kind of crumbled cookie we concocted by mixing sesame seeds, sugar, and, naturally, Lillet in a pan over high heat.

Lillet doors
Photo Credit: Elizabeth Nicholas

Not yet ready to call it a night, we soldiered on to Café Bellini, which was packed with trendy French twentysomethings sipping – what else? Lillet. Chosen purely by chance, this bar’s menu still had Lillet scattered throughout its pages. Each variant we chose was perfect, and certainly kept us – ahem – spirited well into the morning. After trying Lillet in three disparate but equally French settings, Lillet proved to be an unqualified success in each.

A new initiate into the cult, I set out on the train back to Paris. But it was only once back in my adopted neighborhood of St. Germain and regaling Parisian friends with tales from my trip that I learned something about the aperitif that stopped me in my tracks: it may be French, but it was the key ingredient in James Bond’s signature drink, the Vesper martini. If that’s not a ringing endorsement for the cultural malleability of the drink, I don’t quite know what is. I realized that while you might need Lillet to be French, you certainly don’t need to be French to enjoy Lillet.

Elizabeth Nicholas

Journalist focusing on architecture, art, fashion, food, literature, and travel. Lives in Paris, but will travel almost anywhere at the drop of a hat. ...(Read More)

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