Psychologists say that you are never so irritated by people as when you subconsciously know you have the same annoying tendencies they do. Recently I was researching the French drink Lillet for an entry, and I became side-tracked by ‘The Vesper’, a cocktail which James Bond ‘creates’ in Ian Fleming’s 1953 book ‘Casino Royale’. I could not believe how much there is on this drink – the web is littered with an endless back and forth on what the original Vesper would have contained. The more I read, the more I found myself becoming annoyed with all the opinions and intrigue.
The Vesper (or the ‘Vesper Martini’ as it’s sometimes incorrectly known) is a drink in a book of fiction. How much can there be to say about it? Who really cares? As I clicked, and clicked I found myself led along a trail of furious debate of ever aspect of the recipe. And I mean every. ‘Do these people not have a life?’ I thought. ‘They must be completely insane obsessing over something as trifling as this’. Then I looked down at the notes I had made. Clearly the mysteries of ‘The Vesper Triangle’ sucked me in before I realized what was happening. Never doubt that insanity IS contagious.
Here is an extract from the book describing the ‘Moment of Creation’ of ‘The Vesper’:
No-one seems able to agree on what a ‘measure’ was in the 1950′s, and it really wouldn’t matter to the flavor of the drink if you got the ratio right, but here’s the thing: Bond says he never has more than one drink before dinner, but he likes it to be ‘large’. Exactly how large was The Vesper? Are we talking ounces? Gills (an old-fashioned measure)? So large that only James Bond could drink it and maintain his sobriety?
Also, he wants it served in a ‘deep champagne goblet’. What in the world is a ‘deep champagne goblet’ anyway? I know of coupes and flutes. Goblets? In the movie, it gets served in a Martini glass, which is disappointing, because it cleared nothing up for me. (Yes of course I googled it. Apparently even Google is clueless – the endless mishmash of of images contains variations on the three glasses I’ve already mentioned. If you do know, please illuminate me at once.)
I’m not all that interested in the measuring details. Personally I would just use 3 shot glasses of gin, 1 of vodka, and a 1/2 of Lillet, and then divide the drink in two, one for me and one for you. If you want more precision, you will to investigate further.
The original Gordon’s Gin used to be 94% proof in the 50′s. The Vesper bloodhounds investigated, and found today’s Gordon’s is under 80%. A couple of enterprising spirits tracked down an export version of Gordon’s that is apparently still made 94% proof, which is what you must use if you can find it. If that search fails, the consensus is that you should default to Tanqueray.
Bond says the cocktail would have been better with a grain vodka, which implies the vodka used was potato-based. So you will need 2 bottles of vodka, one potato-based (to recreate the precise cocktail from that evening), and one grain-based to see if Bond was correct, and it really is better (if you try this, and you can tell the difference, and you don’t let me know….. ). There is a quibble over whether you can find the correct strength of potato vodka, but that is more than even I can cope with.
The Kina Lillet
If recreating the original Vesper looks challenging in the gin and vodka departments, when you get to Kina Lillet, the whole thing starts falling apart. Lillet was reformulated in 1986 – today’s version contains less sugar and less quinine – so it’s less sweet and less bitter. Dave Wondrich, goes to wondrous lengths in his Esquire article to re-make the drink to Bond’s specification – he actually (God love him) tracked down quinine powder to push the bitterness up to the original level! But when it comes to the sugar levels, I’m sorry to report a massive fail. He never adjusted for the lowered sugar. To have been absolutely correct he should have added a little sugar syrup.
Exact amounts? I can’t say – I doubt that Lillet will part with the original recipe. You can only default to best guess. Even if you serendipitously found a bottle of pre-1986 Lillet, there is a chance the flavor will have changed over the years. Those of us who obsess over details have to settle, alas, for aiming for perfection rather than achieving it.
As for the name ‘Kina Lillet’ – Ian Fleming was a little out of date, even in 1953. Lillet had stopped calling its drink ‘Kina Lillet’ by the end of the 1930′s. The ‘Kina’ refers to quinine – precisely speaking, Lillet is a ‘quinquina’ which is the proper name for a quinine-based alcoholic tonic drink. It was known as simply ‘Lillet’ until 1962 when Lillet Rouge was created. The original Lillet is white, and when Lillet Rouge came out, it became known as Lillet Blanc, or Lillet Blonde .
There are numerous recipes which attempt to recreate the original Vesper. Some versions sub Cocchi Americano for Lillet. There are top secret sources who claim that Cocchi Americano tastes almost exactly like the old Lillet. I don’t know – Bond was very specific, and I’m not sure that a substitute for Lillet is something he would approve of, but then he’d probably be able to hunt down a bottle of the original. If you have Cocchi Americano on hand, try it and report back on what you have found!!! Dave Wondrich’s recipe comes closest in detail to the original, so I’m quoting it:
Shake (if you must) with plenty of cracked ice:
- 3 oz Tanqueray gin
- 1 oz 100-proof Stolichnaya vodka
- 1/2 oz Lillet Blanc
- 1/8 teaspoon (or less) quinine powder or, in desperation, 2 dashes of bitters
Strain into a chilled cocktail glass and twist a large swatch of thin-cut lemon peel over the top. Shoot somebody evil.
Don’t forget to add a little sugar syrup to compensate for the 1986 reformulation. And test the potato-based vodka version as well. Don’t shoot anyone – while I have no doubt the court will agree that your sanity is questionable when they hear testimony on the lengths you went to to create the original Vesper, it’s not a defense you can bank on. Remember – there are no cocktails in prison
Lillet (Click on link for more info)
Cocchi Americano (Click on link for more info)
I found a lot of great info on the Vesper on this site: Summer Fruit Cup