Quinine, nature's cure for malaria, is curiously on the rise in beverages. Besides tonic water, you can taste it in the recent imported quinine-flavored elixirs Bonal and Cocchi Americano, in sodas like San Pellegrino's Chinotto and Scotland's Irn-Bru, and in the not-new-but-one-of-my faves Barolo Chinato, a digestivo from Piedmont, Italy.
Bitter wines are a key to our cocktail past, which should make all those mustachioed and cuff-wearing bartenders you encounter very happy. Here's how: Cocchi Americano (made since 1891 in the Piedmont town of Asti from Moscato wine) is the closest thing we have to the original version of Lillet, a.k.a. Kina Lillet. The original Lillet was a somewhat bitter, quinine-rich, aromatized wine that was called for in many classic cocktails, like the Twentieth Century (1939) and the Corpse Reviver #2 (1930). Kina Lillet became a hot topic of conversation several years ago with the remake of the James Bond movie Casino Royale. In the 1953 Ian Fleming book, Bond invents a variation on the martini that he calls the Vesper: "Three measures of Gordon's, one of vodka," he says, "half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it's ice-cold, then add a large thin slice of lemon peel."
In 1986, Lillet changed its formula to the still delightful, but softer, version today just called Lillet. When the revamped Casino Royale came out, bartenders had been making the Vesper for two decades using today's Lillet, which made an adequate but somewhat flabby drink. Over time, as more bartenders became aware that the original recipe had called for Kina Lillet, they started doing things like adding a touch of tonic water to give a hint of quinine (though at the same time diluting the drink). Now, with the availability of Cocchi Americano, they can get closer to the original Vesper. With all the interest in these antique spirits, what's holding Lillet back from doing a limited-edition release of Kina Lillet? (Hello, Lillet, are you listening?)
I recommend another way of consuming these quinine-flavored elixirs: on their own. Bonal, which is from southern France and is based on red wine, is wonderful served simply with a cube of ice in a tumbler (I love to take a sweet vermouth like Carpano Antica this way as well). Cocchi Americano is even more bitter, but when drunk with a splash of soda and a slice of orange—as they do in Italy—it's delicious. While the wines on first impression seem sweet and rich, the quinine finish simply squeezes them in its fist and pinches off any hint of unctuousness. These wines embody everything that's beautiful and civilized about an apéritif: just enough alcohol to relax the mind before a meal, with a lingering bitterness that stimulates our appetite for food.
Barolo Chinato, on the other hand—such as the superb version from Cappellano—makes for a wonderful after-dinner sip, offering satisfying richness with the bonus of the digestive kick of herbs. Not to mention a nice hedge against malaria.