The drink was invented by two brothers, Paul and Raymond Lillet, who were distillers producing a range of fruit eaux-de-vies. In the 19th century, Bordeaux was the most important port city in France, and fruits and spices were coming in from all over the world, giving them access to a range of exotic fruits and spices to distill and turn into liqueurs. Five years after setting up the distillery, they came up with the recipe for an aperitif made from the plentiful local wines, mixed with the very fashionable quinine – tonic water had been granted an English patent in 1858, and quinine continued to be seen as a healthful tonic, and pretty much the only treatment against malaria and other fevers, until after World War II- plus a range of fruit liqueurs. As the 20th century got underway, they stopped making the other eaux-de-vie and concentrated just on Lillet Blanc.
In 1985, Bruno Borie, owner of Chateau Ducru Beaucaillou, bought the
business from the Lillet family – some of whom still remained working
in the company. Pierre Lillet, the 93 year old grandson of the
original owner, and previous cellar master himself, still comes by the
offices every day to see how things are going, while other members of
the family have long been among Bordeaux’s most important courtiers
or wine brokers.
In Ian Fleming’s 1953 novel, Casino Royale, Bond instructs the bartender to make a drink of the secret agent’s own invention, consisting of three measures of Gordon’s, one of vodka, and half a measure of Kina Lillet. He names it the “Vesper” after his love interest at the time.
Kina-Lillet was originally created under the name “Amer-Kina”. The formula was adapted to the taste of the public
in the early 1900s, originally it was more bitter, but ladies would not drink it, with an adjustment to its quinine content and resulting bitterness.