Bringing It Back Bar: What to Do With Lillet Rouge

Every bar sports marginal bottles that elude even the most seasoned drink-makers. That is, until someone dusts them off and uses them in a new way. In "Bringing It Back Bar," we shine a light on overlooked bottles and devise recipes to take them from back bar to front shelf. Up now: the red wine-based aperitif, Lillet Rouge.

A lightly spiced, bitter aperitif wine, Lillet Rouge is often overlooked within the Lillet family, passed over in favor of its brighter, pastel-hued siblings. But Rouge, with its fruit-forward flavor and full-bodied texture, can be an asset in both shaken and stirred drinks, or simply enjoyed on its own. 

Made from a blend of cabernet sauvignon and merlot grapes, Lillet Rouge is fortified with lemon and orange brandies and quinine, the latter of which acts as a bittering agent. It was introduced to the market in 1962 by Pierre Lillet as a ruby-hued attempt to double down on the success of its predecessor, Lillet Blanc, which had become famous in the 20th century thanks to a number of celebrity endorsements (among them, those from the Duchess of Windsor and Ian Fleming, whose James Bond famously enjoyed it shaken into a Vesper.)

Though it was first marketed as being best served over ice with an orange slice (the preferred method in its native France), today, Lillet Rouge is more commonly used in the U.S. as a cocktail ingredient. But even in mixed drinks, it’s never seen quite the same level of popularity as Lillet Blanc, or even the more recently introduced Lillet Rosé. Bartenders, however, are looking to change that, using it in a variety of red-wine based cocktails—or as a replacement for red wine altogether.

Take New York’s Nitecap, where Natasha David uses Rouge to create a spritzed twist on mulled wine: She pairs the aperitif with fruit-forward gamay, chai-infused oloroso sherry and cinnamon syrup, highlighting Rouge’s notes of dark fruit and vanilla. Though “people are afraid of chilled red wine-like things,” as David says, the sparkling wine-topped Treasure Chest is undeniably modern, and a far cry from sticky-sweet sangria.

LA’s Aaron Polsky, bar manager at Harvard & Stone, agrees that Rouge plays well when incorporated alongside complex, warm spice flavors, like those found in yellow Chartreuse or Don’s Mix. And in his New Yorker in LA Sour, a play on the New York Sour, he uses it in place of red wine, shaking it alongside Bittermens’ pineapple-based Tepache liqueur to play against the characteristically warm, oak-driven flavors in the whiskey.

Franky Marshall, on the other hand, plays off of Rouge’s more bitter, tannic flavors in her Rougeur, which sees additions of two types of amari (Averna and rhubarb-inflected Cappelletti Amaro Sfumato) and Leopold Bros.’ cherry liqueur stirred and strained over ice. Calling on bottles from Italy, the U.S. and France, this somewhat unorthodox take invokes the cocktail’s historic irreverence towards long-established drinking traditions, for an undeniably American take on a decades-old aperitif.