By Craig Ormiston
We knew we wouldn’t make it very far throwing James Bond cocktail parties without first dialing in our specifications for and serving two drinks: the vodka martini and the Vesper.
The drink with which James Bond became the most associated is the vodka martini, due largely to its recurring appearance in the movies (we count it in 16 of the films to date). The catchphrase, “shaken, not stirred,” was not, however, born in association with a vodka martini. Instead, James Bond first asked for a cocktail to be shaken in Chapter 7 of Casino Royale, the first novel by Ian Fleming that debuted the character in 1953:
"A dry martini," [Bond] 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?"
Unlike a standard vodka martini usually characterized by vodka, vermouth, and an olive, this drink uses both gin and vodka, Kina Lillet instead of vermouth, and lemon peel instead of an olive. In the following chapter, Bond names this drink a “Vesper” after the preeminent Bond girl, Vesper Lynd. Perhaps due to how the novel ends, James Bond never orders a Vesper again in the books (although Felix Leiter orders him another version of one in the novel, Diamonds Are Forever, but I digress). Nevertheless, the drink became re-popularized by its reintroduction in the film version of Casino Royale (2006).
We decided to debut our cocktail series with Casino Royale. The book marks the first appearance of the character, it's one of our personal favorite films, and we hoped launching with a more popular modern title would draw a crowd along with a more accessible inaugural theme (cocktail attire). Having made that decision, we endeavored to put our own twist on two classics: the Americano, the first alcoholic beverage the character ever puts to his lips (in Chapter 5 of the novel), and the Vesper, which was invented by Ian Fleming (as presented in the passage quoted above).
In this post, I will share with you our process for landing on our recipe for the Vesper.
The Lillet Conundrum
To begin, we referenced the recipe as it first appears in the novel in Chapter 7:
Lillet is a French fortified Semillon wine flavoured with citrus peels. The name “Kina” derived from the kina-kina tree (also known as the cinchona tree). The bark of tree introduced the bittering ingredient quinine into the spirit. We couldn’t find a bottle of Kina Lillet and quickly learned why: Kina Lillet had been reformulated in 1986 to remove this distinctive bittering ingredient to appeal to a broader palette. Kina Lillet doesn’t exist anymore and was replaced with a much sweeter variant called Lillet Blanc.
In our zealous nerddom, we weren’t going to stand for this. So we purchased a bag of cinchona bark and tried to infuse it back into Lillet Blanc ourselves. The result discolored the final cocktail into an ugly red or, infused less, simply didn’t carry enough bittering distinction to make the infusion worth the effort. I wasn’t ready to give up, but Eddy convinced me to let it go.
Modern menus, bartenders we spoke to, and the illustrious Internet recommended a handful of substitutes for Kina Lillet: Amaro Angeleno, Cocchi Americano, the limited release Réserve Jean De Lillet, Kina L'Avion d'Or, or simply adding Angostura bitters to Lillet Blanc. Finding most substitutes difficult to come by, we grabbed bottles of Lillet Blanc and Cocchi Americano to taste test. We tried both separately and preferred Cocchi on its own. When we haphazardly tried to blend them together, we both had the same reaction: holy shit, yum, blend for the win. Our final version of the cocktail leans into the Cocchi a little bit more than Lillet at a ratio of 2:1 to better balance the sweetness in the drink.
Writing this post now, I am still inspired by the original quest to re-introduce quinine back into the drink, perhaps with quinine powder, by making our own or finding quinine bitters, infusing the bark into a different fortified wine, or by sourcing harder-to-come-by substitute bottles. Nevertheless, the balance we came up with by blending commonly-sold substitutes makes for an extremely delicious and easier-to-source-and-make take on this classic cocktail.
The Gin Conundrum
The novel recipe calls for Gordon's Gin. When the only Gordon’s bottle I found in the liquor store was plastic and substantially cheaper than other gins, I started to have my doubts. We brought several bottles of gin home to do a taste test. Sure enough, we found Gordon’s heinous. Not only that, but further research revealed that Gordon's Gin had also been reformulated in 1992. Alas, we’ll tragically never really know again what the original recipe for the Vesper tasted like.
We taste-tested and tried drafts with a handful of gins including Beefeater and Plymouth, but quickly fell in love with Hayman’s Old Tom Gin. While Gordon's Gin in the novel recipe is a London Dry gin, we found the sweeter Old Tom-style gin far more palatable in the cocktail and rolled with it. At this point, we had given up chasing the original recipe and committed to making the tastiest beverage possible. We do not regret these decisions. That said, Hayman’s London Dry Gin is freaking amazing as well and first appeared on our GoldenEye menu in the Stiff-Ass Brit. You can't go wrong trying to make a Vesper with it.
Finding a Balance
The only ingredient we had left to decide on was our vodka. In the novel, Bond says, “if you can get a vodka made with grain instead of potatoes, you will find it still better.” When blind taste-testing grain-based vodkas, Stolichnaya surprisingly won all of our tests. Vodka back in 1953 had alcohol levels trending closer to 50%, so you’d likely achieve a more traditional flavor and bite if you used Stoli’s 100-proof vodka. However, the 100-proof version isn’t readily available in our neighborhood liquor stores, so we opted for the standard 80-proof version. For the measure we use in the drink, the 80-proof tastes great.
Armed with Hayman’s Old Tom Gin, a blend of Cocchi and Lillet, and Stolichnaya, we set about balancing the measures of each. The novel recipe calls for a 3 to 1 to half ratio of gin, vodka, and wine. At that ratio, all you taste is gin (though perhaps the vodka might cut through at 100-proof, but you surely still couldn't taste the wine). When we pulled the ratio of gin to vodka down to 2:1, we still found the drink too boozy and accused the vodka. Doubling the wine (at this point, still an equal blend of Cocchi and Lillet) didn’t help and only made the drink taste more like wine. Bringing down the vodka helped, but the drink wasn’t sweet enough. At last, we pulled down the total amount of gin and vodka and added just a little bit more Cocchi (our preferred wine of the two) to sweeten it up. This resulted in our favorite draft:
Recipe: The Vesper
1 ½ ounces Hayman's Old Tom Gin
¾ ounce Stolichnaya Vodka
½ ounce Cocchi Americano
¼ ounce Lillet Blanc
Garnish: Lemon Twist
Shake all the ingredients with ice, then strain into a chilled coupe glass. Twist a thin-cut lemon peel over the top and garnish.