The pandemic in France means seven o’clock curfew, no gatherings, no restaurants, no bars, no clothing stores. I’m fine, Tom’s fine. Our days are busy and our evenings are cozy. So why is there this lingering feeling that I’m lacking a little extra zest in life? Maybe its because for more than a year I have not been 30 minutes from home
Recently the local SudOuest Mag(azine) gave me the spark— the zest!—for a dream adventure. My dream destination is just south of Bordeaux. Open Tuesday through Saturday, 10h - 12h30 and 14h - 18h. Three euros will get you entry and a tasting, by appointment only. (All of this changed last night when a month long shutdown was announced.)
In my fantasy I’m speeding down back roads, over rolling hills covered in blossoming fruit trees, gamboling sheep, and miles of budding vineyards. I’m exhilarated by the liberation of the open road. If I’m on my lonesome the first song up is Freedom (yep, George MIchael, for a hoot hollering sing along). If I snagged a friend for this adventure there’s mile a minute disjointed conversations. If Tom has reluctantly left the ranch to join me there’s snoring.
I’m off in search of the glamor of James Bond, the Duchess of Windsor, and the glory days of transatlantic steamships. I’m off to la Maison LIllet.
Here’s the back story-
In 1872 two brothers, Paul and Raymond Lillet (pronounced “lee lay”) created a “society” for the production of a fortified drink. Using locally produced white wine and the waste from citrus fruits imported from French colonies they created a concoction “based” on the principles of Louis Pasteur. “There are germs in the water? Then let us drink wines with quinine.” It was reputed to be “exquisite, inoffensive, hygienic par excellence.” Lillet quickly became the apéritif of fashionable women and discerning gourmets. This alcohol of a golden color with the taste of summer received a gold medal at the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris.
The golden years continued from 1930 to 1950. Wallis Simpson, the Duchess of Windsor (the American interloper that tumbled a crown) was crazy fond of Lillet. She was miffed when it wasn’t served in Paris at Fauchon, the George IV, - or even the Ritz! She quickly corrected this and introduced Lillet to all of the hot spots where she hung out - palaces, beach hotels, ski resorts, glamorous transatlantic crossings…
Her signature drink, The Smiling Duchess won first prize for a cocktail drink in 1937. The author Ian Fleming was also a grand devotee. In Casino Royale James Bond orders a drink that has 3 measures gin, one measure vodka and a half measure Lillet. 007 baptized the cocktail The Vesper for his one and only, the beautiful Vesper Lynd. Bond ordered this drink "shaken, not stirred" giving rise to this immortalized catchphrase. From the casinos of Montenegro Lillet sailed into American high society via transatlantic crossings from Le Havre to New York City. Eighty percent of Lillet sales were in America. Ironically, it took a trip to the restaurant in the Empire State Building for Frenchman Bruno Borie to discover this drink that was made in his region of France. By 1985 he had purchased Lillet and was marketing the brand world wide.
To this day no one knows the secret ingredients that give Lillet its special zest. We know it is based on dry white wine produced in the south west of France, quinine from the bark of the Cordiliere tree in the Andes, the zest of sweet Moroccan oranges, and the zest of bitter Haitian oranges, but that special something extra remains a well guarded secret.
Lillet is still a small company. This keeps the “society” agile and guarantees the handcrafted quality of each bottle of spirits. Lillet is exactly what folks are looking for now-a-days - small is beautiful, authentic, anchored in tradition, coming from a small territory and still produced on location. In 2013 1 million bottles were produced per year. In 2020 the production grew to 9 million bottles per year. The staff has grown from 5 to 10.
Soaking up the glory of this long history I’ll take the tour of la Maison Lillet, enjoy the tasting, fill the trunk with Lillet, spend the night in the glorious Chateau Sigalas Rabaud, dine on the terrace overlooking the vineyards, and wake up the next morning to the gentle sounds of Fleetwoood Mac singing Dreams (“now here you go again you say you want your freedom,,,,,”)
Back in reality I’ll settle for a Smiling Duchess under the tower of a medieval castle on the sun soaked terrace of a glamorous friend. Boy I’ve had a zesty, grand time right here in our small dreamy village.
2 cl gin
1cl apricot brandy
1 cl Crème de Noyeaux
2 cl vodka
1 cl Lillet Blanc
zeste of orange or lemon
Some fun web sites:
Thank you Louise for being my bartender!
All Lillet posters are taken from web images - thank you for letting me share these.
***Please drink responsibly***