Credit: Julia Thiel

Having spent months reading about how Lillet Blanc served over ice is the perfect summer drink, I finally picked up a bottle several weeks ago. (I’ve always been a procrastinator.) As much as I liked the floral, citrusy flavor of the fortified wine, it turned out to be too sweet for me to drink straight, even when topped off with sparkling water. I figured I could always use it in cocktails, but I was curious about another bottle I’d seen on the shelf next to the Lillet: Cocchi Americano, an Italian aperitif wine that I’d heard was similar to Lillet. 

It is—and isn’t. I did a little research and found that while both have been made since the late 19th century, many cocktail enthusiasts believe that in the 1980s Lillet changed its formula to make its product less bitter, cutting back on the amount of quinine they used at the same time they changed the name from Kina Lillet to Lillet Blanc. (Quinine, also used in tonic water, is a bittering agent originally consumed to ward off malaria.) Apparently Lillet’s website used to state that from 1985 to ’86 the product was reformulated to be “fresher, fruitier, less syrupy, less bitter”—but now the official company line is that the recipe for Lillet has never changed. 

There’s plenty of conflicting information out there about if and when the flavor of Lillet changed (if you want to read more about it, the Savoy Cocktail Blog post that I linked to above is a good place to start). But if it did change—and most sources I’ve read say it did—it also changed the flavor of classic cocktails made with Lillet, like the Corpse Reviver 2 and the Vesper. Enter Cocchi Americano, which is rumored to taste very much like the old version of Lillet (though again, this is difficult to confirm since the old version, if it exists, hasn’t been made for at least 30 years). While it’s never gone out of production, it’s only been widely available in the U.S. for about the last five years.

The ingredients for a Corpse Reviver 2 (plus an extra fortified wine)
The ingredients for a Corpse Reviver 2 (plus an extra fortified wine)Credit: Julia Thiel

I bought a bottle and found that Cocchi Americano is sweeter, spicier, and much more bitter than Lillet (which has no bitterness that I can detect). I’ve never had much interest in trying the Vesper, James Bond’s drink of choice in Casino Royale, which sounds overwhelmingly and uninterestingly boozy: three ounces of gin, one ounce of vodka, and half an ounce of Lillet. The Corpse Reviver 2, on the other hand, is a cocktail I’ve enjoyed at bars but hadn’t made myself until recently. It’s equal parts gin, Cointreau, Lillet Blanc, and fresh lemon juice, with a dash, a spritz, or a few drops (depending on the recipe) of absinthe.

I mixed up two half-size cocktails (a total of two ounces each), one with Lillet Blanc and one with Cocchi Americano. I usually like tart cocktails, but these were a little too sour even for me. (I was careful to measure out all the ingredients exactly, so I don’t know what went wrong, but I had the same experience with a previous attempt to make the cocktail.) The one with Lillet was all but undrinkable, so I added a touch more orange liqueur to each and a few more drops of absinthe, which I’d used a little too sparingly.

Corpse Reviver 2 made with Lillet (left) and Cocchi Americano (right)
Corpse Reviver 2 made with Lillet (left) and Cocchi Americano (right)Credit: Julia Thiel

That improved both cocktails, but the one with the Lillet was still very tart, even a little harsh tasting, and seemed one-dimensional. Not only did the flavors not come together, I couldn’t taste much besides the lemon. The cocktail with the Cocchi Americano, on the other hand, was fuller, rounder, and much better balanced. The bitterness of the Cocchi faded into the background yet still managed to amp up all the other flavors. Similarly, the absinthe was just a hint of an herbal aroma, adding complexity to the cocktail without being noticeable as a distinct flavor. What I’d read about Cocchi Americano being preferable to Lillet in classic cocktails seemed to be holding true so far.

I’d made the 20th Century Cocktail—a post-Prohibition drink with an ingredient list similar to the Corpse Reviver 2—in the past with Lillet and remembered liking it, so I decided to do another side-by-side comparison. The classic recipe is an ounce and a half of gin, three quarters of an ounce each of Lillet and lemon juice, and a half ounce of creme de cacao. Because I was using creme de cacao I’d made myself, which is less sweet than the commercial varieties, I went with a version from Saveur that uses just half an ounce of lemon juice, but otherwise I followed the recipe exactly. All the recipes I saw called for white creme de cacao so the drink doesn’t look muddy, but I liked the orange tinge my dark-brown liqueur added.

The version with Lillet was lovely, lemony and bright—an incredibly refreshing cocktail that finishes with a sophisticated, not-quite-bitter cocoa note. It’s a combination that doesn’t seem like it should work, but it does. And while the cocktail is plenty acidic, it’s not overwhelming the way the Corpse Reviver is.

20th Century Cocktail, made with Cocchi Americano (which looks identical to the version made with Lillet)
20th Century Cocktail, made with Cocchi Americano (which looks identical to the version made with Lillet)Credit: Julia Thiel

The Cocchi Americano version is even better, with the same added sweetness and full-bodied flavor I noticed in the Corpse Reviver, but in this case a touch of quinine comes through at the end. The bitterness doesn’t overwhelm the chocolate flavor, but complements it in a way that makes it difficult to identify. Whereas the cocktail with Lillet begins with a lemony, slightly herbal flavor and ends with dark chocolate notes—delightful and straightforward—the version with Cocchi is more mysterious. All the flavors of the Lillet cocktail are there (and then some), but they morph into something unidentifiable, greater than the sum of its parts. It’s bright and velvety at the same time, barely sweet, undeniably tart, and hauntingly bitter.

I wasn’t looking for a fall cocktail when I began testing these two—I thought that both of my experiments would be more summery—but I ended up finding one in the 20th Century Cocktail (especially when made with Cocchi Americano). It starts out light and bright enough for the latest Indian summer days, but then transforms into something dark and complex enough for blustery, cold fall evenings.

Corpse Reviver 2 (modified)

1 oz gin (I used Ford’s for all the cocktails, and it worked beautifully)
1 oz Cointreau (I used Patrón Citrónge, another orange liqueur)
1 oz Cocchi Americano (or Lillet)
.75 oz lemon juice (or up to an ounce, to taste)
1 ml absinthe

Add all ingredients to a cocktail shaker with ice, shake, and strain into a cocktail glass.

20th Century Cocktail (adapted from Saveur)

1.5 oz gin
.75 oz Cocchi Americano (or Lillet)
.5 oz creme de cacao (if you’re using commercial creme de cacao, you may want to increase this to .75 oz)
.5 oz lemon juice 

Add all ingredients to a cocktail shaker with ice, shake, and strain into a cocktail glass.