Ian Fleming's classic Bondian cocktail, the Vesper, hinges on one, now extinct ingredient: Kina Lillet. Created at the end of the 19th century in France, Kina Lillet was one of the first spirits in the class of quinquinas, wine-based spirits flavored with bitter quinine extracted from cinchona bark. Although the Kina Lillet disappeared sometime in the late 1960s, other Lillet bottlings such as Blanc and Dry retained quinine as an ingredient, making them serviceable replacements for Kina. But then, in 1986, Lillet began production without the all important bittering agent. The aperitifs were saccharine, syrupy, and one-dimensional. As a result, the Vesper suffered and became a shadow of its former self.
Luckily, a newfound appreciation of bitter flavors amongst drinkers and bartenders alike has inspired importers to bring a slew of new quinquinas into the U.S. market, paving the way for a Vesper revival. Now, the classic cocktail can not only be made as it was originally intended, but it has the capability to reach new levels of bitter glory. Here, five of our favorite substitutions for Kina Lillet.
Compared to the original recipe, modern day Lillet Blanc is less bitter, sweeter and more syrupy. For a simple fix, embolden your Lillet Blanc-based Vesper with a few hefty dashes of Angostura bitters. The final cocktail might not look as clear and pristine as it should, but the taste will be superb.
Made in Los Angeles, this sunshine-hued amaro is made with an unaged brandy and Pinot Grigio wine infused with locally grown herbs, including verbena, thyme, and gentian, as well as citrus. Bright and floral with orange notes and a rich, buttery mouthfeel, Amaro Angeleno’s bitter edge only reveals itself in the finish. The amaro lends a beautiful golden hue to a Vesper, and its soft texture, weight and undulating layers of citrus flavor come through in the cocktail. With a gentle, bitter sting, a Vesper made with Amaro Angeleno is perfect for cocktailians new to the flavors of bitter amari.
Pronounced "COKE-y" not "COACH-y", this Italian aperitif is made with a base of Moscato wine macerated with herbs, spices, gentian root and cinchona bark. With herbal complexity, soft sweetness and a bitter bite, Cocchi is one of the best substitutions for Kina Lillet. Using the aperitif in a Vesper creates a cocktail that is dry, bright and citrusy, with a sharp bitter backbone. It’s perfect paired with a fat swath of lemon peel and a game of Baccarat.
This limited release, small batch aperitif from Lillet is made from French Sauternes and aged for a year in French oak barrels with orange peel (both bitter and sweet) and cinchona bark. Close to the original Kina Lillet in flavor, this aperitif brings complexity to any cocktail. In a Vesper, Jean De Lillet mixes well with lighter citrus forward gins (try Ransom Dry Gin or Greenhook Ginsmiths American Dry), and has a dense, honeyed flavor with a sharp, bitter finish.
From Tempus Fugit Spirits, this aperitif is based on a 19th century recipe typically found in the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence region of France. With Piedmontese Cortese grapes as it base, the spirit is infused with sandalwood, orange peel and exotic spices, as well as wormwood and cinchona bark for bitterness. Deep gold in color, Kina L’Avion d’Or has flavors of orange marmalade, quince, buttered toast and wildflowers. It creates a rich Vesper with depth, robust bitterness and a lasting, mouth-coating finish.
Salers Aperitif ($20)
One of the oldest French aperitifs, this spirit has been made in the Massif Central region of France since 1885. Producers macerate neutral spirits with the roots of Gentiana Lutea, a wild, bitter herb that grows in the mountainous region of Auvergne, France, then rest and age it in Limousin oak barrels. Bittersweet and earthy with bright lemon citrus notes, this springy spirit has flourishes of fennel fronds and strong vegetal flavors on the finish. With a higher alcohol content than any other spirit on our list, Salers makes a dry, savory Vesper that packs a subtle, boozy wallop.