Do the Gainsbourg

Many of you will just want the recipe without all the yammering, so here it is in its glorious simplicity:

1.5  oz vodka
1.5 oz Lillet Blanc
Fee Bros. Lemon Bitters
Lemon peel or wedge

As a martini: Stir vodka, Lillet Blanc and dash of Fee Bros. Lemon Bitters with ice until well chilled; strain into cocktail glass and garnish with lemon peel.

On the rocks: Stir vodka and Lillet Blanc with ice until well chilled: strain over fresh ice in a rocks glass and add paper-thin lemon wedge.

It’s no mean feat, inventing a cocktail, and I admire the talent of anyone who can do it well. I’m a bit of a classicist and generally hard to please, and my preference for drinks being simple and straightforward often leaves me at a loss when selecting from a nearly limitless array of increasingly complex beverages. I have only created a couple of original cocktails myself, and the most recent is, I think, my most successful. It’s called the Gainsbourg.

I can’t show you a picture of it, which is unfortunate for a number of reasons, primarily because it means I am not drinking one right now. For those of you foreigners in the audience, liquor sales in the province of Ontario are controlled by the aptly named Liquor Control Board of Ontario, the LCBO or KGBO as it is known in some circles. The LCBO is a fantastic resource in many respects, with the power and influence of the single highest volume alcohol purchaser in the world (or such is my understanding). They bring in a staggering array of high quality product, and make it available to anyone of drinking age practically anywhere in the province.

What they do not bring in, however, which occasionally appears subject to whim, remains somewhere between difficult and impossible to obtain within the confines of our provincial borders. And what the LCBO does not currently stock in any great quantity (currently about two cases, and none of it in or near Toronto) is Lillet Blanc.

Lillet Blanc is a French aperitif, a fortified wine treated with various botanicals and extracts, and perhaps most famously serves as an important ingredient of James Bond’s Vesper martini, first described in Casino Royale. The current composition may differ somewhat from the time at which that was penned, depending on who you ask, but as I wasn’t around to taste it I can’t really claim that I’m missing out.

The first time I tried Lillet, at a wine tasting at Swirl, I thought wow, that’s lovely, and ran out and bought a couple of bottles (the LCBO is nothing if not capricious). And then after living with it for a while, I started to identify some of its shortcomings (as one does). I don’t really favour it as a stand-alone aperitif, as it’s a wee bit much. A little too… everything. If the instructor of my wine appreciation course is reading this, he is most certainly not giving my review a passing grade. But at the same time, he knows what I mean.

So, what to do. Let’s find some cocktails that contain Lillet in an attempt to mitigate the muchness. Why not a vesper? Well, it’s an interesting and not unpleasant drink, but at a ratio of eight parts overproof spirits to one part Lillet, we’ve gone perhaps too far in the opposite direction. What else have we got?

How about the Corpse Reviver #2? It’s certainly a drink I might have again sometime, but ingredients like cointreau, absinthe and lemon juice in the quantity called for in the Corpse Reviver don’t leave much room for the subtlety lurking under Lillet’s marginally cloying exterior.

My solution was a simple revelation. Go back to the Vesper, balance it out and strip it down. Take equal parts vodka and Lillet, and either shake over ice and strain into a cocktail glass, or on the rocks in an old fashioned glass. Add a touch of lemon to even out the orange notes (orange tends to dominate the cocktail recipe books, I find, in its numerous incarnations), and you have what I have dubbed the Gainsbourg, for its French style and insouciance bolstered by Russian heritage.

Choose the vodka with care too. Russian Standard is our current house brand, but I find it a bit brutish for the Gainsbourg. Try something a little smoother and transparent – Grey Goose and Tito’s both work well.

I have just been informed that the LCBO will be restocking their shelves with Lillet, after a damnable absence, on November 12 – a week from tomorrow.