For the uninitiated cocktail hound, it’s easy to go with what you know — gin and tonic, rum and coke, vodka and soda. Those types of mixed drinks are super easy to make at home, as the recipe is right there in the name.
However, there is a legion of interesting liqueurs that, I suspect, would be high on most people’s list of must-haves if they were only introduced to them. Unlike standard spirits, this category of liqueurs starts with a base spirit, such as gin or vodka, then adds herbal, citrus, fruit, nut or berry ingredients that subtly enhance flavors and soften the intensity, so they are more drinkable.
A few well-known examples of this include Cointreau, Pimms, Gran Marnier, Kahlúa, Limoncello and Disarrono. Another that is high on my list of enjoyable warm-weather drinks is Lillet Blanc.
Pronounced lee-lay blonk, this French libation was created in the late-1800s in the Bordeaux region. It is made by blending white wine with the peels from a variety of oranges, cinchona bark and quinine. The amount of quinine was reduced in the mid-1980s in order to lessen the bitterness and appeal to more modern tastes. The result is a very smooth, light and slightly sweet liqueur with subtle honey notes that tastes very similar to a medium-bodied white wine. There are also two other versions of Lillet (rouge and rosé), but Lillet Blanc is the mainstay.
The most prominent cocktail using Lillet has to be the Vesper, famously ordered in the 1963 James Bond novel “Casino Royale” — “three measures of Gordon’s (gin), one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet.” That particular cocktail will throw one for a loop, especially after a second round is ordered. Yet Lillet (the “Kina” was dropped in the mid-’80s), is just slightly higher in alcohol by volume than wine, at 17 percent. This makes it the perfect warm-weather drink to waste the day away in the backyard by the pool or show off at your next party. Be sure to keep the entire bottle well-chilled as it can turn bad quickly.
Lillet is perfectly fine on its own in a highball glass filled with ice cubes, or topped with soda, tonic or ginger ale. Add an orange or lemon slice to brighten it up, or even cucumber or strawberry. In a mixed drink, it pairs best with gin or vodka, adding a subtly sweet element that rounds out a basic vodka soda or gin and tonic.
I recently started playing around with peppercorns as a cocktail ingredient, as I found it adds a bit of zing at the back of the palate. For this Lillet Blanc cocktail, I used black peppercorns to counterbalance the honey notes, but white or pink peppercorns will work just as well.
Kevin Hopper manages the bar program at Capitol Bar and enjoys a nice summer nap in the backyard with a bottle of Lillet Blanc close by.
1 ounce Lillet Blanc
1 ounce Gin (a high-proof gin like Plymouth is perfect)
1/4 ounce Honey syrup (recipe follows)
1/2 ounce Fresh lemon juice
2 dashes Orange bitters
5 black peppercorns
Top with Seltzer
Lemon twist garnish
In a mixing glass, combine Lillet, gin, bitters, honey syrup, lemon juice and peppercorns. Fill with ice and stir for 45 seconds (this is key because you want to really cool this mixture down). Double-strain the mixture into a Collins glass and top with a touch of seltzer. Garnish with a twist of lemon. Sink into your favorite hammock.
In a small saucepan, heat equal parts of honey and water to just before boiling. Turn off heat and stir until the honey is dissolved. Cool to room temperature and store in an airtight container in the refrigerator.