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A Match Made in Heaven: A Lillet x Maray x The Essential Journal Retrospective

A fond look back at last week’s Maray x Lillet pairing dinner

In truth, it’s hard to think of a more gracious double act. Established in 1872, Maison Lillet’s aperitifs are delicate, decadent and all-singing, all dancing odes to the beauty and brilliance of France’s Bordeaux region. Likewise, born in the summer of 2014, Maray is a purveyor of small plates and inspired cocktails and a modern day love letter to Paris’ 4th arrondissement.

That the two should come together for an evening of Lillet-forward cocktails and carefully-curated food pairings isn’t just inspired thinking, it’s just good old common sense. After all, Maray Allerton seems purpose-built for friendly intimacy and wine-fuelled conviviality. Which, as it happens, is also something of a speciality of Maison Lillet.

Under the soft glow of Maray’s mood lighting and the even softer tones of our host, Clo Lataille’s French accent, we are whisked away on a journey across Southwestern France. We almost expect to catch a glimpse of Bordeaux’s moonlit Rue Sainte Catherine from beyond the window of our sold-out first floor dining room. It’s an illusion that’s expertly maintained over the course of the evening, as both Lillet and Maray prove themselves to be gracious hosts, vivid storytellers and expert entertainers in equal measure.

The first course sets a most extravagant tone for the evening: Lillet rouge, fresh apple and blackcurrants shaken over ice. A dash of Peychauds and a welcome addition of sparkling wine shows exactly why Lillet excels in the spritz department. Paired with a consciously minimal ensemble of fennel, baltic cheese and candied walnuts, the result is a full and fruity affair that teases at Lillet’s potential without giving too much away too quickly.

What comes next is an even clearer statement of intent: Passion fruit infused Lillet Blanc and a touch of peach liqueur bring a light zest while the herbaceous, gentian sweetness of Suze works its magic in the background. A kombucha top keeps things light and fizzy. By traditional accounts, it’s a cocktail turned upside down, but it’s a message that reads loud and clear: Lillet Blanc isn’t just a martini modifier. Created in 1887, the blanc has the character, charm and complexity to carry a cocktail.

Mackerel, greengage and a Lillet Blanc-infused yoghurt make up the evening’s second dish. There’s no shoehorning or showboating here. It’s clear that each element has been meticulously conceived with the drink in mind. The creamy meat of the mackerel is an obvious choice for Lillet’s smooth, white wine base, while the gentle, bittersweet kick of the greengage plums compliments the cocktail’s sweeter stonefruit notes.

The third course is a real powerhouse of rich flavours and textures: Lamb cutlet, sauce vierge and pomme anna. The choice of Lillet Rosé is a curveball at first glance. Its light, playful aromas of fresh berries, orange blossom and pink grapefruit aren’t what you’d expect to see alongside red meats. But combined with the fig and prune notes of a little tawny port and a pink peppercorn kick of tonic, Lillet Rosé reveals a boldness quite unparalleled in its age bracket and category.

Aside from the stellar performance of Lillet Rosé, the cocktail itself is pure theatre. Poured over a carved ice globe and garnished with a slither of strawberry, the cocktail is as easy on the eye as it is on the tongue. The drink itself comes pre-bottled, conceived to be shared between two diners in a celebration of the evening’s intimate, communal, and quintessentially French setting.

The final French flourish of the evening comes in the form of Lillet’s coveted Grand Reserve. Unavailable on the UK, this rare 2012 vintage boasts a singular soft spice upfront that quickly gives way to a silky, decadent flourish. The lingering dried fruit and oaken, honeyed spice finish is unmistakable; the extra ageing (around 12 months as opposed to the usual 4) has certainly made its mark on the vintage. Despite dealing with the same 17% ABV as the rest of the evening’s expressions, the grand reserve betrays a bolder flavour that stands on its own and welcomes straight-up sipping. Accordingly, Maray’s cherry and almond clafoutis is a soft, subtle and delicate little dessert that’s perfectly happy to let Lillet’s vintage do the talking.

And therein lies the beauty of the whole evening: Balance. Just like Lillet’s aperitifs, Maray know how much is just enough. Food pairings are dime a dozen, and for the avid foodie that’s by no means a bad thing. But on an all-too-rare occasion, you get an event that transcends the simple back-and-forth of booze and small bites to become something more akin to artistic collaboration. Our evening with Lillet and Maray was one such occasion. Not only were we given the chance watch two experts in perfect command of their respective crafts, we were also afforded the rare luxury of experiencing the charm, and sophistication of Southwestern France without so much as stepping out of our own postcode.

The Lillet range is available to buy at The Whisky Exchange.

Words by Will Halbert
Image Credits by Thomas Sumner