As many of your know, the Vesper was the creation of none other than the famous MI6 agent himself – James Bond. Which, of course, means that the cocktail was the invention of Ian Fleming who penned the recipe in ‘Casino Royale’ (1953) – the first novel of fourteen in the James Bond series. Let’s take a look at the well-known passage from Chapter 7, “Rouge et Noir”:
“My name’s Felix Leiter,” said the American. “Glad to meet you.”
“Oh yes,” said his companion, “and now let’s see. What shall we have to celebrate?”
Bond insisted on ordering Leiter’s Haig-and-Haig ‘on the rocks’ and then he looked carefully at the barman.
“A dry martini,” he said. “One. In a deep champagne goblet.”
“Just a moment. Three measures of Gordon’s, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it’s ice-cold, then add a large thin slice of lemon-peel. Got it?”
“Certainly, monsieur.” The barman seemed pleased with the idea.
“Gosh, that’s certainly a drink,” said Leiter.
Wait. Just wait. Fucking hell. Before I delve into the Kina Lillet quandary, I must comment on this infamous “shaken, not stirred” proviso that has caused not inconsiderable consternation for many a drink enthusiast. This drink is compounded with entirely spirituous, blissfully clear ingredients. To shake a drink of this composition could only mean that you’ve taken complete leave of your senses. It makes one ponder if James Bond (Ian Fleming) knew his arse from his elbow when it came to the fine art of mixed drinks. Shaking this would only result in a cloudy, unsightly mess, devoid of the silky texture we strive for. Shake at the peril of your soul. At the peril of your soul.
Alright then. Kina Lillet. Yet another lost ingredient. In the 1980s the recipe for Kina Lillet was modified and rebranded as Lillet Blanc. This new product was intended to be “fresher, fruitier, and less bitter” than the original (“Kina” was dropped from the name due to the drastic reduction of quinine in the revamped recipe). Another quinquina, Cocchi Americano, is the closest commercially available product that resembles the Kina Lillet flavour profile, but alas, Cocchi Americano is not currently carried by the LCBO. Curses! Foiled again.
Bond laughed. “When I’m . . . er . . . concentrating,” he explained, “I never have more than one drink before dinner. But I do like that one to be large and very strong and very cold and very well-made. I hate small portions of anything, particularly when they taste bad. This drink’s my own invention. I’m going to patent it when I can think of a good name.”
This is a big drink: 4½ ounces of booze before the addition of water. Remember, there is no chilling without dilution (in the context of shaking or stirring). One can expect that after chilling, you’d have something around 5½ ounces, give or take. Hence the deep goblet. Most cocktail glasses these days are 5½ ounces, so slurping may be in our futures. I’d prefer to make two drinks at half the specified measures to ensure proper chill for the duration of my quaff.
As for the “well-made” bit, he’s clearly contradicting himself given that shaking a drink like this falls squarely into the realm of “contemptible”.
And with regards to the name, later in the book (the next chapter, in fact), he names the cocktail after the beautiful Vesper Lynd, whom he falls in love with (that dress may have had something to do with it). Spoiler alert: she turns out to be a treacherous double agent that ends up suiciding herself out of guilt, thus turning our hero into the cold-hearted misogynist that we all know and love.
He watched carefully as the deep glass became frosted with the pale golden drink, slightly aerated by the bruising of the shaker. He reached for it and took a long sip.
Bruising? Let’s be clear, shaking a drink doesn’t cause any bodily harm to the spirit in the least. This being said, the violent thrashing associated with a well-shaken drink will definitely aerate the spirit, forming tiny bubbles that effect texture, and – according to Kevin Liu – dissolve atmospheric oxygen and carbon dioxide into the liquid. Mr. Liu is inconclusive as to whether this adversely impacts taste, but Troy Patterson claims that “shaking introduces a cloudiness and astringency,” which he finds quite objectionable (“yucky,” I think was his exact word). I second that.
“Excellent,” he said to the barman, “but if you can get a vodka made with grain instead of potatoes, you will find it still better.”
Grains are far and away the more popular ingredient used in vodka distillation. As far as I can tell, Chopin from Poland is the only potato-based vodka widely available. So no fear of disappointing Bond in this regard. But, is it just me, or is this a douchebag thing to say to a bartender?
“Mais n’enculons pas des mouches,” he added in an aside to the barman. The barman grinned.
“That’s a vulgar way of saying ‘we won’t split hairs’,” explained Bond.
“But let’s not fuck flies,” is the direct translation on that one. Double-Oh-Seven had a way with words. Stay classy, San Diego.
But Leiter was still interested in Bond’s drink. “You certainly think things out,” he said with amusement as they carried their glasses to a corner of the room. He lowered his voice.
“You’d better call it the ‘Molotov Cocktail‘ after the one you tasted this afternoon.”
They sat down. Bond laughed.
Har, har, har! Alright, enough of that – let’s get down to mixing.
- 2¼ oz. Bruichladdich The Botanist Islay Dry gin
- ¾ oz. Русский Стандарт (Russian Standard) Platinum vodka
- ½ oz. Cinchona bark-infused Lillet Blanc
Throw your shaker away. Add your ingredients to a mixing glass together with plenty of ice. Stir for 30 seconds or thereabouts and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a broad swatch of lemon peel, twisted smartly. Raise one eyebrow and sip, then spin ‘round and shoot somebody evil with your trusty Beretta 418. Cue blood wash down screen.
Word on the street is that Gordon’s gin used to be 94 proof; however, it now weighs in under 80. Pity. The Botanist is bottled at 92 proof, so I think it’s a fine substitute (plus it’s Scottish – Mr. Connery would approve). The vodka would have been fairly potent as well – 100 proof Stolichnaya most likely. Apparently, Stoli 100 is still made, but it’s not available where I reside; so, I went with a decent Russian vodka (rye/wheat mashbill, of course). As for the Kina Lillet, I ended up infusing Lillet Blanc with a small quantity of cinchona bark, which added a pleasant bitterness without overwhelming the delicate flavours of this aromatized wine. With regards to the exact details of my quest for a reasonable facsimile of Kina Lillet, I think I’ll save that tale for a future post.
This is a pretty potent cocktail, however, not one that will make it onto my list of favorites. Some have said that a well-crafted vodka lifts and highlights the flavours of the other ingredients in this cocktail, but I find that the opposite is true: the vodka mutes the taste of the gin, and the gin/vodka drowns out the finer points of Lillet (although some of the quinine bitterness does come to the fore in the finish). It is a smooth drink, I’ll give it that. But, in terms of quality: more of a Timothy Dalton than a Sean Connery or Daniel Craig.
As a final point of interest, a recent study has shown that James Bond might have been physically unable to stir his drinks because of the persistent shaking of alcohol-induced cerebellar tremor, making it more socially acceptable to ask for his drinks “shaken, not stirred.”
Warning signs, people. Warning signs.