Harry Craddock Strikes Again! The Kina Cocktail
Much has been written concerning Lillet Blanc or, as it was once known, Kina Lillet. Lillet was founded in 1872, but their famous aromatized wine would not hit the American market until the late 1930s and, even then, most Americans didn’t know what to do with it. Harry Craddock, working in London and the man behind The Savoy Cocktail Book, knew exactly what to do with it. A quinquina similar to Dubonnet (meaning that is contains a small amount of bitter quinine), Craddock used it like another vermouth. Where things get complicated for anyone wishing to mix a faithful recreation of any cocktails containing Kina Lillet, is determining which Lillet they intended for the cocktail, and is it available now? Apparently, Lillet was producing different versions of their wine for different markets. One version was consumed in France as an aperitif, while a second version was exported to England to be used in cocktails. With renewed interest in cocktails like the Corpse Reviver #2 and the Vesper, great debates have raged among modern mixologists as to whether the current Lillet Blanc is the same as the old Kina Lillet used by Craddock and others.
From an historical perspective, such questions are interesting and, for some people, all consuming. In the end, does it really matter? It depends on your perspective. We all wish we could go back in time to experience (and taste) history firsthand, but that, unfortunately, is not going to happen. Besides, we are having that drink right now and, if it tastes unappetizing, then all the debates and arguments are moot. We will simply move on to something else.
Today’s Lillet Blanc is a fine product right out of the bottle (after being properly chilled), but it is obvious that if it contains any quinine at all, it is so little as to be almost imperceptible. Lillet Blanc makes a much better dessert wine than an apperitif. As for cocktails, sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. The same can be said of different vermouths; some work better in a martini than others, for instance. At some point, Lillet was reformulated to better suit modern tastes which meant, we assume, taking out the bitterness. As I always say, it boils down to personal taste. Many folks have abandoned Lillet Blanc altogether in the old cocktails in favor of Cocchi Americano (pronounced “kokee”), an Italian quinquina that many say is closer to the old Kina Lillet. Who knows.
Here is Harry Craddock’s recipe:
1 ½ oz Dry Gin
¾ oz Kina Lillet (Lillet Blanc or Cocchi Americano)
¾ oz Sweet Vermouth
Stir with ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass.
So, which version is closer to what Harry was mixing up at the Savoy: the Lillet or the Cocchi Americano version? We will never know. The Lillet version is slightly sweeter and smoother, serving to tone back the sweet vermouth and gin a bit. The Cocchi Americano asserts itself much more, holding up to the vermouth and gin. Which is better? Depends entirely on your tastes.
Lillet is Catherine Deneuve. Cocchi is Sophia Loren. Personally, I like them both.