Drink of the Week: Vesper (Martini)

By Paul Nelson

I didn’t grow up on James Bond. I wasn’t allowed to watch the movies until I was a teen, and even then it was only the edited-for-television broadcasts on ABC. I may have seen one James Bond film in the theater, and I watched Skyfall on Netflix a few years ago. But in general the films have been too over the top for my tastes, whether on the scale of explosions and car chases or in the realm of drop-dead gorgeous femme fatales.  I’ve never even read any of the books.

Ian Fleming created a character idolized by men and desired by women in part for his self-confidence. A secret agent who always uses his actual name.  A man who always knows what he wants and goes after it. Not surprisingly this is true of his signature drink. Bond is famous for ordering a martini (vodka or gin, according to the books) “shaken not stirred.” The first iteration of this drink, however, is provided (according to Wikipedia) in Fleming’s Casino Royale.  Here’s a guy who never has to think about what he’s in the mood for.  He knows what he wants, and he knows how he wants it. Muy sexy, n’cest pas?

The official Fleming version of what becomes known as the Vesper or the Vesper Martini (named after the undoubtedly beautiful Vesper Lynd):

  • 3 parts Gordon’s Gin
  • 1 part vodka (preferably grain-based rather than potato-based)
  • 1/2 part Kina Lillet

Shake the ingredients vigorously together with ice, serve in a deep champagne glass (a margarita glass is not as glamorous but substitutes well!) and garnish with a large, thin slice of lemon.

I tried this drink tonight. Predictably, I didn’t care for it since I don’t like gin. I don’t think it makes me less manly, but I considered the possibility for a moment. Perhaps it just reaffirms what I already knew – I’m not British. I may try this drink again, reducing the gin to two parts and increasing the Lillet to a full part or even a little more. The idea is that the Lillet softens the impact of the two very strong liquors. It does, but not nearly enough to hide the fact that there’s a ton of gin in there!

I used Bombay Sapphire gin instead of Gordon’s and I don’t feel at all bad about it. If you’re a stickler for details and accuracy then get Gordon’s. But frankly I think Bond would sneer at your slavish consistency. To my mind, if I’m going to lick a Christmas tree (which is what I liken drinking most gins to – except for Hendrix gin), then I don’t much care if I’m licking a Douglas or a Noble. If you really have strong feelings about what Christmas tree you most prefer to lick, go for it. My rule of thumb stands – don’t buy the most expensive stuff in the store, but don’t buy the cheapest, either (and yes, I apply that same rule to actual Christmas trees)!

Lillet is a sweet French wine mixed with citrus-based liquors and quinine-producing botanicals. It was first developed in the late 19th century, and is considered an aperitif – a before-dinner drink intended to stimulate the appetite. It is sweet and heavy as an offset to the bitter (gin) and more neutral (vodka) liquors. It was traditionally known as Kina Lillet because of the quinine content, but the manufacturer apparently removed this in the mid 1980’s, changing the name to just Lillet. Now it appears to have quinine back in it again.

Oddly enough, it is actually tastier when served cold. I shook mine with ice (which results in more meltage and a dilution of the drink. It can also sometimes make the drink a bit cloudy, something martini purists abhor. If gin is your thing, than enjoy. If it isn’t, try something else!