Kina Lillet was created at the end of the 19th century in France, where wine-based tonics flavoured with quinine were popular.
Such drinks are known in France as quinquinas due to the addition of the quinine, a bitter ingredient that is extracted from the bark of the South American cinchona tree, or “kina kina”. The ingredient acts as a muscle relaxant and has been used for centuries to treat malaria.
Kina Lillet was launched in 1895 as an aperitif and tonic and quickly became known as “the aperitif of Bordeaux”. In addition to the wine and quinine, it consisted of a blend of fruit liqueurs.
During the 1920s the company launched Lillet Dry for the English market, which was usually mixed with gin, while the company reduced the prominence of Kina in the name and sometime in the 1930s Kina seems to have been dropped altogether.
A further name change occurred in the 1960s, after Lillet Rouge was introduced; the original product became known as Lillet Blanc (or Lillet Blonde depending on territory), a name which is retained today.
James Bond and Kina Lillet
The 1950s saw a revival in the fashion for cocktails and Lillet became popular once more in England – “Everyone enjoys and gin and Lillet” ran the ad – and the drink took off in the United States.
This coincided with Ian Fleming getting down to writing his “spy story to end all spy stories”, which included the recipe for James Bond’s first contribution to the cocktail world, the Vesper (overshadowed later by the Vodka martini of course). The recipe given by Fleming is as follows:
- 3 measures of Gordon’s gin
- 1 measure of vodka
- 1/2 a measure of Kina Lillet
- Shake until ice cold and serve in a deep champagne goblet with a large thin slice of lemon peel
Did Ian Fleming get it wrong?
Kingsley Amis, in The Book of Bond, claimed that Fleming had made an error in his recipe because the quinine in Kina Lillet would make the drink too bitter and it should be made with “Lillet vermouth” instead.
Probably Amis was referring to Lillet Dry (see above), but what is certainly true is that Bond was a little out of touch – by the time Casino Royale was written the original drink was known simply as Lillet.
Unfortunately it is impossible to test Amis’ theory today; in 1986 the recipe was changed and the quinine content decreased to reduce bitterness. The result is a fruitier drink with a pronounced orange flavour.