Quinquina and Americano

by Rhett Williams

Aside from vermouth, the most common classifications of aromatized wine are quinquina and americano. These are not so 'common' in North America anymore, however, due to availability and also to popular brands changing their recipes. As seen in the previous post on vermouth , altering recipes can make classification confusing as defining ingredients are sometimes removed. In the case of vermouth these alterations were largely due to the legal and reputational issues with wormwood. In the case of americanos and quinquinas, this is due to the increase in production volume of popular brands, but also the change in the public's general palate and the producers' desire to evolve with those trends.

Lillet and Dubonnet are the best examples of this, and also the most popular products of their kind. In 1986, Lillet was rebranded (removing "Kina" from the name) and the recipe supposedly removed most or arguably all of the quinine, making the product taste considerably sweeter and lose its bitterness. Likewise, Dubonnet changed its license in the 1940's and began production in Kentucky for the American market. The taste of the U.S. version is also less bitter and less complex. Aside from the decline in taste, the unfortunate consequences of these changes affect classification and more importantly cocktails. A quinquina without quinine is technically not a quinquina. A classic cocktail containing an ingredient that has lost its bitterness will be both inaccurate and unbalanced. 

Quinquina

During the colonization period of the 17th and 18th centuries, malaria became a threat to European soldiers. It was discovered by the Italians that a Peruvian tree bark called "chinchona," or "quina" in the native tongue, could ward off the disease. This was due to a chemical in the bark named "quinine," and it became a requirement for sailors to have daily rations - what later became known as tonic water. (Add in a ration of citrus to ward off scurvy and a ration of gin to make it all more palatable and we have the origin of the Gin & Tonic). Chinchona became a popular tonic at home as well and it was soon added to bitters and wines. Aromatized wines containing chinchona, and therefore quinine, became known as "quinquina" (keen-KEEN-ah). Interestingly, quinquina was largely produced by the French and not by the Italians who first brought it back to Europe.

Common Brands

Bonal Gentiane Quina: originally made in St. Laurent du Pont, southeast France, in 1865 with the major components being both gentian root and quinine.

Byrrh: created in 1866 in Thuir, also southeast France, by brothers Pallade and Simon Violet from red wines, mistelle, and quinine. It was branded as a health tonic due to local competition from other aperitif producers. Byrrh was somewhat popular in the U.S. until Prohibition when it stopped distribution, but returned to the American market in 2012.

Dubonnet: one of the first and most successful quinquinas, created in Paris in 1846. It was the most mild-tasting and after World War II became even more mild in the U.S. when production for that market switched to the Heaven Hill Distillery in Kentucky. Dubonnet outside of the U.S., including what is sold in Canada, is representative of the original product. 

Lillet: Originally branded "Kina Lillet" in 1887 in Podensac, Bordeaux. Brothers Paul and Raymond Lillet made jams, marmalades, eaux de vie, and Cognac before trying their hand at aromatized wine. It is made from an 85% blend of Bordeaux wines and 15% citrus liqueurs, and is macerated with herbs. In 1986, the name was changed and supposedly so was the recipe. While this is still somewhat a matter of debate, today’s Lillet has essentially no bitterness at all compared to other quinquinas and americanos. It is at least fair to assume that Lillet does not contain enough quinine to still be considered a quinquina. Rouge and rose versions were released in 1962 and 2010 respectively.

Common Uses

Numerous classic cocktails, particularly from the SavoyCocktail Book  call for Kina Lillet, but it is actually an americano that is best suited for recreating these drinks (see below). However, Dubonnet also shows up occasionally, like in this 1920's classic from Harry's New York Bar in Paris: 

Opera Cocktail

  • 2oz gin
  • 1/2oz Dubonnet
  • 1/4oz maraschino
  • Dash orange bitters

Stir ingredients with ice, strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with a lemon twist.

 

Americano

This is a tricky classification as it is defined by botanicals that are present in other aromatized wines, so the only clear separation is in the intention and marketing of the product by its producers. Americano, named by the word "amer," meaning bitter, not by anything to do with the U.S., has a defining flavour of gentian and/or wormwood. On average, they are considerably more bitter than vermouths and usually higher in sugar content and therefore viscosity as well. Americanos are usually enjoyed as aperitifs, more so than quinquinas and much more so than vermouth. They show up rarely if at all in classic cocktails.

 Common Brands

Cocchi Americano: created in Asti, Piedmont, Italy, in 1891 from Moscato di Asti grapes. The taste of this product is very similar to old bottles of Kina Lillet. For this reason, Cocchi Americano is considered by cocktail experts to be the closest approximation of the original Kina Lillet, and is today often used in drinks calling for this as an ingredient.

Contratto AmericanoRosso: while their products date back to the 19th century, production ceased until somewhat recently when this Piemonte sparkling wine producer was bought by new owners and old recipes were given new life.

Common Uses

As mentioned above, Cocchi Americano is a good representation of Kina Lillet, so a Vesper, Twentieth Century, or Kina Cocktail are all good choices, but probably the best place to start is the Corpse Reviver #2, dating back to the 19th century but made famous by Harry Craddock at the Savoy Hotel in the 1930’s. 

Corpse Reviver #2

  • 3/4oz gin
  • 3/4oz orange Liqueur
  • 3/4oz Cocchi Americano
  • 3/4oz lemon juice
  • Dash of absinthe

Shake all ingredients with ice and strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with a cherry.

Meticulously classifying these products may seem overly tedious or even moot, but it gets us in touch with their history and original intentions. Paying attention to product history also allows us to recreate cocktails in a historically accurate way, which is educational and respectful of their past.

 

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