By Craig Ormiston

Jump to Cocktail Recipe

Our twist on a Vesper. Photos by Justin Lang.

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."

"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?"

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.

Stiff-Ass Brit

by Eddy Colloton

Jump to cocktail recipe

Two of the cocktails I’m most proud of creating so far were both designed for our GoldenEye party in April. To be honest, my memory of how this all shook out is a bit fuzzy (likely due to the amount of liquor imbibed during our brainstorming sessions). I had watched Craig infuse liquors for our previous parties, notably for Underneath the Mango Tree, which ended up using both akee-infused rum and cocoa nib infused banana liqueur. I tried an orange peel infusion for our take on an Old Fashioned for the Live and Let Die party, but we ended up rejecting that idea (whiskey infusions are hard because whiskey tastes really good...and in something like an Old Fashioned, people want that taste...don’t fix what’s not broken).

My sister used to live in London, and she once brought me a sort of “sampler pack” of Fortnum & Mason loose leaf teas for Christmas. F & M is an over 300 year old company, famous for creating teas for the royal family (they're super English). Not being a big tea drinker, I would occasionally make a “cuppa” but, to be honest, these ornately packaged tins were sort of languishing on my kitchen counter for awhile. I noticed them one day and thought, “that tea is probably the most English thing in my apartment.” We were currently working on our The Living Daylights party, which we had initially intended to be a Russian-themed all-vodka extravaganza, so I thought I would try infusing some of the vodka I had purchased for that party with some of this incredibly British tea. I texted Craig about the idea and he sent me some pictures from the Death & Co book with tea infusion recipes. I googled some tea infusion recipes and I am really glad we sought inspiration from the D & C recipes instead. Some tea infusion recipes suggest leaving tea in booze overnight! Don’t bother. I have always done something like a half hour to an hour, more than enough.

I ended up trying Earl Grey tea with some Peach Street Vodka and Smoky Earl Grey with Rittenhouse Rye. I steeped each for about an hour with around a tablespoon of tea per 150-250 mL of booze. I loved the result and I don’t even like tea!

I was doing my homework, re-watching GoldenEye for the gazillionth time, this time with an eye out for some reference to tea or England that I could cop for a drink title. I remember considering naming the work in progress cocktail after Dame Judy Dench, or maybe calling it “For England James.” But then a line jumped out at me: when Bond first meets CIA Agent Wade (a character I loved as a kid… now, not so much), Wade calls him a “Stiff-Ass Brit.” After Wade eschews a spy film trope by dismissing their coded salutations, Bond sticks his Walther in the guy's ribs and insists he verify his identity. Once Bond is satisfied that Wade is who he says he is, Bond self-applies the insult, and introduces himself as “James Bond, Stiff-Ass Brit.”

Boom. Cocktail name.

My first attempts at making cocktails with these teas were pretty successful. A lot of the things that taste good in tea also taste good in booze. The tea isn’t so overpowering that the taste of the spirit disappears, so traditionally good combinations still hold up. Plus, I had recently purchased some Dolin Blanc, which I now love, and figured that would work very well with vodka (it does). The first two iterations of the Stiff-Ass Brit were a bit different from how it ended up:

Whiskey version

  • 2 oz Smoky Earl Grey Tea Whiskey
  • 1/4 oz Goldschläger

Yeah, Goldschläger. Look, it’s for a gold themed party, it has gold in it. People like cinnamon in their black tea. I figured, why not? We didn’t use it. Mostly because that shit taste awful.

Vodka version

  • 2 oz Earl Grey infused Vodka
  • 1 oz Dolin Blanc

I also tried this with delicious Maurin White, which I buy at my local wine shop Baker Wine & Spirits, but the Maurin has so much going on already that it doesn’t pair as well with the tea flavor compared to the simplicity of the Dolin Blanc.

I believe we tried both of these at one of our Prep Nights (the party before the partyTM), and the vodka one was not surprisingly the crowd favorite. I remember Craig asking me to try it with Hayman's London Dry Gin since that would make the cocktail even more English. I initially opposed this idea, because I liked the simplicity of the vodka. But when we eventually tried the infusion with gin, it was way better.

I have always wanted this cocktail to be super simple, something that Craig strongly resisted. We tried a lot of different things with the gin version, adding Leopold Bros Fernet at one point, several different variations of bitters including Dram Lavender Lemon Balm, but ultimately we ended up just adding a bit of honey simple syrup to finish it off. While I was dragged kicking and screaming at most every point, I’m glad Craig continued to push me to add something else to this cocktail. I would have settled at the vodka incarnation of this drink and it would have suffered for it. You don’t know how to make the best of a cocktail idea until you’ve tried all the options (preferably not in one sitting).

The final recipe is as follows:

Recipe: Stiff-Ass Brit

Steep Fortnum and Mason Earl Grey tea in Hayman’s Royal Dock Gin for approximately 40 minutes, 1 tablespoon per 250 mL.
Make honey simple syrup by combining equal parts honey and hot water and shake vigorously till mixed thoroughly.

  • 1 ½ oz Earl Grey Infused Gin
  • ½ oz Dolin Blanc Vermouth
  • ¼ oz Honey Simple Syrup

Stir, strain, and serve with expressed orange peel garnish. For an extra touch of “GoldenEye,” we added a dash of edible glitter to this drink.