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Lillet (French pronunciation: ), classed as an aromatised wine within EU law, is a French wine-based aperitif from Podensac. It is a blend of 85% Bordeaux region wines (Semillon for the Blanc and for the Rosé, Merlot for the Rouge) and 15% macerated liqueurs, mostly citrus liqueurs (peels of sweet oranges from Spain and Morocco and peels of bitter green oranges from Haiti). The mix is then stirred in oak vats until blended. During the aging process, Lillet is handled as a Bordeaux wine (undergoing fining, racking, filtering etc.).
In the original Kina Lillet formulation (so named with respect to its status as a quinquina), quinine liqueur made of cinchona bark from Peru was included among its ingredients. "Lillet" belongs to a family of aperitifs known as tonic wines because of the addition of quinine liqueur.
In 1872, the brothers Paul and Raymond Lillet, distillers and merchants of wines and spirits, founded their company La Maison Lillet in Podensac, south of Bordeaux, France. The idea of making aperitifs in Bordeaux came from Father Kermann, a doctor who left Brazil at the beginning of Louis XVI's reign. Back in France, he settled in Bordeaux, where he produced liqueurs and fortifiers from plants such as quinine. During that time, Bordeaux became one of the most important places for the European wine business. It was also France's main harbour for products imported from the Caribbean islands.
At the end of the 19th century, people developed a great fear of illness as a consequence of the discoveries made by Louis Pasteur (1822–1895). Nevertheless, "Wine", Pasteur said, "can be considered with good reason as the most healthful and the most hygienic of all beverages". As a result, tonic wines (with quinine) became very popular as quinine was used to fight fevers and ease malaria symptoms.
In 1887, Pierre and Raymond Lillet created Kina Lillet. Originally blanc, when all other aperitifs were red, Lillet was the only aperitif from a specific geographic location, one of the most famous, the Bordeaux region, or more precisely Great Sauternes region (at that time Sauternes was covering appellations that are now considered as Bordeaux or Graves appellation).
During the 1920s, Lillet exports greatly increased in Europe and Africa. The brand also became famous in France, thanks to advertising campaigns. At the same time, Lillet was served on transatlantic liners, part of the reason for its success with high society in New York. American bartenders used it for making fashionable cocktails.
In 1962, Pierre Lillet, grandson of Raymond, keen to capitalize on America's growing taste for red wine, created Lillet Rouge for the American market.
In the early part of the 1970s, Maison Lillet removed "Kina" from the brand name calling it simply Lillet. "Kina" had become a generic term used by many aperitifs to emphasise their quinine content, and was no longer relevant for the times. Lillet is the name of the family, and became the only name of the brand.