Worlds Collide: James Bond and the Vesper Martini

Perhaps no one in thriller literature, or literature in general, is as associated with the Martini as James Bond. With just three short words he launched countless thousands of Martini drinkers off into the arms of Bacchus: "shaken, not stirred."

I won't go into why this is the wrong way to prepare a Martini — actually, I will: briefly, it spoils the crystalline purity that is one the drink's sublime pleasures — nor will I offer a diatribe on how Bond convinced so many drinkers that a Martini should be made with vodka instead of gin. (Something akin to making cookies with peanut butter and calling them chocolate chip.)

No, the purpose of today's post is to discuss something that Bond — actually his creator, Ian Fleming — did right: he created a new drink.*

Here is the relevant passage, from Casino Royale (1953), the novel that introduced 007. Bond walks up to a bar, accompanied by his CIA contact, Felix Leiter, and orders a drink:

"A dry martini," [Bond] said. "One. In a deep champagne goblet."

 "Oui, monsieur."

 "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?"

Bond called the drink the Vesper, after the book's love interest, the beautiful double agent, Vesper Lynd.

It's basically a Dry Martini with vodka substituted for some of the gin in order to mellow out the flavor a little. Kina Lillet, used instead of vermouth, was a French aperitif flavored with cinchona bark (quinine), giving it a slightly bitter taste, but leaving it still a little sweeter than the typical dry vermouth.

All in all, a tasty way to make a Martini. Sadly, Bond never drank it again. The book does not end well for Vesper Lynd — it never does for Bond's ladies, does it? — and he discarded the drink along with her memory.

Here is the recipe:

The Vesper Martini

Shake with ice:

3 oz gin
1 oz vodka
1/2 oz Lillet Blanc

Strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Add a lemon twist for the garnish.

Bond liked his cocktails on the large size (see below), so this will make a hefty drink. You can adjust the quantities if you'd like. Just keep the ratios the same.

For the gin, I recommend a strong-flavored London Dry, like Tanqueray. This will approximate the flavor of the British Gordon's gin of Bond's time. (A different animal from the Gordon's sold in the U.S. today.)

For the vodka, Bond preferred Russian or Polish, but distillied from grain, not potatoes. So you might use Stolichnaya or Sobieski. (In the movies Bond usually drank Smirnoff, but that's because Heublein paid the studio a lot of money for product placement.)

For the Lillet, it gets more complicated. The Kina Lillet that Bond requested is no longer available. The company now makes an aperitif called Lillet Blanc, which is similar, but doesn't have the quinine (and thus the bitterness) of the original. The drink will still have the same basic flavor profile, but it will be slightly different.

One possible substitute, first proposed by Jason Wilson, is to use Cocchi Americano instead. Cocchi Americano is a French aperitif wine akin to Lillet Blanc, but flavored with gentian root, giving it a similar bitter flavor to the original Kina Littlet. I have not tried this combination, but it sounds promising.

Regardless of how you choose to prepare your Martini, I will leave you with one final piece of advice, also related by Monsieur Bond in Casino Royale:

"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."

Sound advice from a man who knows.

*According to Dale Degroff, the recipe was actually created for Fleming by Gilberto Preti, who tended bar at Dukes Hotel in London. Ted Haigh, however, says this is doubtful.

4 thoughts on “Worlds Collide: James Bond and the Vesper Martini

  1. I must admit I like vodka martinis more than gin, but that’s the price I pay for being a super taster. I would try the vesper though, out of curiosity.

  2. Lillet doesn’t have the quinine level of Kina Lillet, but it still has quinine. Cocchi is better tasting, cheaper, and more complex but it is still not all that much more bitter.
    Regardless, the Vesper always comes across as a big goblet of booze to me, and a 1/2 oz of Lillet vs. Kina Lillet doesn’t seem to make much difference. I still haven’t figured out why there is 1 oz of vodka here (other than movie symbolism about a double agent) since you could just use a touch more subtle gin to the same effect.

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