The Vesper: it’s a can of worms (not literally)

Back in September I was lucky enough to be taken along to the Designing 007: 50 Years of Bond Style exhibition at the Barbican by my other half where I was served a Vesper. I planned to write a nice short blog post about this containing a picture of said drink and a little explanation. Well, that is exactly what has not happened. I had, as it turned out, opened an almighty can of worms that has seen this cocktail lead me on something of a grail hunt in the lead up to Skyfall’s release this week.

“…but that’s not a Vodka Martini at all… and wait, wooden stemware?!”

Let us start at the beginning. (Any post that contains that sentence is clearly far too long but stick with it and there’s a treat at the end I promise!) The 50 Years of Bond Style exhibition was great fun, containing a fascinating selection of props and costumes as well as some of the original storyboards and design drawings from the films. We saw Oddjob’s hat, Scaramanga’s golden gun, Jaws’ teeth and several well-known swimming costumes (more on those later)!

Life-size recreation of poor old Jill Masterson in the Gold Room

Sean Connery with Anthony Sinclair (who has never been confused with Tony Sinclair)

Ken-Adams’ volcano base set design from You Only Live Twice

(A selection of further pictures can be found here.)

Whilst the exhibition was running the Barbican also featured a 007 Martini Bar where visitors made the most of their opportunity to be Bond for a little while before having to step back out onto Silk Street (and the real world).

The 007 Martini Bar

Martini Bar Menu (CLICK TO ENLARGE)

This of course provided the unique opportunity to order a Vodka Martini “shaken, not stirred” without looking or sounding like a complete twonk. At the last second I came to my senses however and ordered another, far more interesting Bond classic: the Vesper.

“A dry martini… One. In a deep champagne goblet… 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?”

- James Bond (from Ian Flemming’s original 1953 novel Casino Royale)

[Lychee ‘Martini’] & the Vesper

Having thoroughly enjoyed the exhibition this was not a decision made lightly; Connery never drank a Vesper, Brosnan never drank a Vesper, Moore, Lazenby and Dalton never drank Vespers. Having only featured in one Ian Fleming novel (the one novel that Eon did not have the rights to until 1999) only Daniel Craig has ordered a Vesper on screen… and on balance I am not a huge fan of Daniel Craig as my favourite suave and sophisticated secret agent…

Here is my theory, based on the aforementioned swimming costumes. Connery and Brosnan (my favourite Bonds) watch their Bond girls, Ursella Andress and Halle Berry respectively, emerge from the sea in their swimming costumes. Of course they do, they’re Bond! Daniel Craig’s Bond girl meanwhile, Caterina Murino, is on the shore as Daniel Craig emerges from the sea in his nut-huggers as if he’s in a Davidoff Cool Water advert. This is a problem.

He still ends up sleeping with the girl of course, but Ian Fleming may have turned in his grave a little also. Just a thought… anyway back to the Vesper…

Connery admiring the view.
“Underneath the mango tree…”

“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. This drink’s my own invention.”

- James Bond (1953)

Like Daniel Craig, the Vesper splits opinion somewhat with ‘Dr. Cocktail’ Ted Haigh describing it as “a work of genius” whilst David Wondrich cites it as proof that “from the admittedly narrow perspective of mixology, James Bond is an idiot”.

For a relatively simple cocktail there is a staggering amount of debate and many points of contention. The single greatest problem in mixing one up today is that one of the ingredients may no longer even exist but first let’s break it down as Bond himself does in order to take a closer look at some of the issues:

“large”: His “deep champagne goblet” was required because martini glasses were smaller in those days (say 3-4 ounces). Most martini glasses today are perfectly adequate for larger (than necessary) cocktails.

Bond may have enjoyed this particular cocktail

very strong”: Great emphasis has been placed when discussing the Vesper on gin and vodka being stronger in the fifties but a few wires seem to have been crossed in places, which has muddied the waters a little.

  • Gordon’s in the UK (in its square-faced, green bottle) was always 40% abv (well before the fifties) right up until the nineties when it was reduced to 37.5%. The export strength found in France, where Bond was served his Vesper, was 47.3% abv and it can still be found at this strength throughout continental Europe. (Tanqueray is more readily available at 47.3% in the UK as many others have observed.)  In the US meanwhile, Gordon’s is still 40%.

Gordon’s 1930s – “70° Proof” = 40% abv (UK)

  • Although Bond was served his Vesper with potato vodka he suggests that “if you can get a vodka made with grain instead of potatoes, you will find it still better”. By choice he drinks Russian and Polish vodkas including Stolichnaya. David Wondrich tells us (in reference to the Vesper) that Stoli was 50% abv in the fifties but as far as I can tell their flagship ‘red label’ has always been 40% (Russian vodkas were usually produced at a standard 40% dating right back to Mendeleev in 1894). Smirnoff in the US meanwhile was available at 40% and 50%, as indeed it still is (although their red label is now 37.5% in the UK).

Smirnoff advert 1953 – “80 or 100 Proof” = 40% or 50% abv (US)

“very cold and very well made”: Here, amongst other things, we face the shaken versus stirred debate. Bond is correct in thinking that a vodka cocktail (more on the gin in just a moment) is best as cold as possible and that this is best achieved by shaking. I refer you to the scientific findings of Dave Arnold from his work alongside Eben Klemm and others:

“Cocktail shaking is a violent activity. If you shake for around 12-15 seconds (though shaking longer won’t hurt), and if you aren’t too lethargic, neither the type of ice you use nor your shaking style will appreciably affect the temperature or dilution of your drink. Shaking completely chills, dilutes and aerates a drink in around 15 seconds, after which the drink stops changing radically and reaches relative equilibrium. Shaking is basically insensitive to bartender-induced variables.

Stirring is different. Think of stirring as inefficient shaking. It can take over 2 minutes of constant stirring to do what shaking can accomplish in 15 seconds. No one stirs a drink for 2 minutes, so the drink never reaches an equilibrium point. All the bartender-induced variables – size of ice, speed of stirring, duration of stirring, etc. — make a difference in stirred cocktails, so bartender skill is very important in a stirred cocktail.

Because stirring doesn’t reach equilibrium, stirred drinks are warmer and less diluted than shaken cocktails. Stirred drinks, unlike shaken ones, are not aerated. Stirring does not alter the texture of a drink –it merely chills and dilutes. A properly diluted cocktail stored at -5 degrees Celsius in a freezer is indistinguishable from a properly stirred one.”

- Dave Arnold (cookingissues.com)

“Shaken drink is in blue, quickly stirred drink is in red, and slowly stirred drink is in green. All drinks started with the same volume of liquor at the same temperature. Equal weights of un-cracked Kold-Draft cubes were used for each. Time is in seconds and T=0 represents beginning of shaking/stirring.”

…but what about cracked ice I hear you say?:

“The greater the surface area, the more water on the surface of the ice. So…. Shaking with small ice makes the drink watery right away… [Unless you can “shake or spin the extra water off your small ice before you make a drink”]… After the initial dilution, small ice and big ice will behave identically (with respect to dilution and temperature).”

- Dave Arnold

The problem most people highlight with shaking a Vesper is that it is actually mostly made up of gin rather than vodka and that shaking will ‘bruise’ the gin, which will have an adverse affect on the overall taste. This, in the words of Robert ‘Drink Boy’ Hess, is “Hogwash”. He indicates that the real reason that you would opt to stir is due to presentation. Cocktails made up of clear ingredients should be as clear as possible and a well-trained bartender should take the time to stir so as to avoid cloudiness caused by aeration.

Shaken vs Stirred Martini (mixnsip.com)

Whilst perfectly valid this is primarily aimed at people who are prone to say “shaken, not stirred” after ordering almost any cocktail, especially a regular martini, simply because James Bond said it when he ordered something-or-other. This of course is not the logic of Bond himself. Earlier I mentioned that martini glasses in the 1950s were smaller (much smaller in some cases) than many found today, this is because a smaller cocktail retains its chill whilst you drink it. Bond would have been well aware of this despite ordering his large drink (in order to bend but not break his self-imposed pre-dinner etiquette) and it was therefore essential that it started off as cold as possible!

The result was a “pale golden drink, slightly aerated” but as cold as it could be (-7°C is about the best you can hope for).

Demandons la quinine!

Still with me? Well the single greatest problem is as follows: Kina Lillet may no longer exist. It is generally understood that in 1985/86 the product was reformulated, becoming less syrupy, less sweet and (perhaps most importantly) less bitter, giving birth to Lillet Blanc the product we find today.

Lillet is a quinquina, an aperitif containing quinine. It is this quinine, from cinchona bark, that was the source of the more prominent bitterness in the original formulation (hence the ‘Kina’ (quina) being dropped), as it is in tonic water.

Here then, are the suggested courses of action for replacing the Kina Lillet:

  • Lillet Blanc – most people writing today are shooting in the dark with regards to how much really changed in the eighties, but those with longer memories, such as ‘Dr Cocktail’ Ted Haigh, recall the event with “utter chagrin”. Don’t believe those who say Lillet Blanc is the same as Kina Lillet – the question is whether there is a better alternative…

  • Jean de Lillet Reserve (Blanc) – originally created alongside Lillet Blanc in the eighties and suggested to be closer to the original formula but still lacking in discernible bitterness according to Erik Ellestad of the Savoy Stomp (2004 vintage).

  • Cocchi Americano – an Italian aperitif that has become the most popular ‘go to’ in place of Lillet Blanc in recipes calling for Kina Lillet, it is more bitter and also more spiced than Lillet Blanc.

  • Kina L’Avion D’or – a new quinquina from Tempus Fugit Spirits (although supposedly based on a century-old Swiss recipe) that is looking to challenge Lillet and Cocchi Americano and is said to be richer than the latter with the requisite bitterness (sounds promising!).

  • China Martini & Lillet Blanc mix – as suggested by David Smith, one half of Summer Fruit Cup, China (Kina/quina) Martini is “made by Martini Rossi (and) heavily flavoured with Cinchona Bark”. A 50-50 mix of this and Lillet Blanc imparts quinine bitterness with the added bonus of making the whole drink the desired pale gold colour, something not sufficiently achieved by any of the suggestions above.

  • Cinchona bark - writing in 2006 and in lieu of greater availability of some options above, David Wondrich sourced some cinchona bark powder from a website selling sustainable rainforest products (raintreenutrition.com) and suggested that a small amount could be added directly into the drink alongside Lillet Blanc. Another option is to steep the bark in alcohol to create your own cinchona tincture/bitters that can then be added. Others, such as Reese Lloyd of Cocktail Hacker, have tried infusing their Lillet Blanc with cinchona with mixed results.

  • Sugar syrup – in order to make up for the lost sweetness and balance any added bitterness (especially if going down the cinchona bark route).
  • Regular Bitters – (if all else fails).

So what, if anything, have we actually settled here? Well, in terms of mixing a Vesper today there are still a few key questions:

Was the Vesper invented by Bond specifically during his time in Northern France, or earlier back in Britain, or elsewhere? Are we in fact trying to recreate the only Vesper Bond was ever served (even though Daniel Craig got around to ordering six more in Quantum of Solace) or one that he has designed in his head?

The first of those questions probably cannot be answered by anyone living today and as we are dealing with fiction perhaps Fleming himself did not even know!

All things considered, I propose two recipes:

.

The Vesper #1 (The Royale-Les-Eaux)

3 ounces (not parts) (9cl) Gordon’s export (europe) (47.3%) – or Tanqeray Export Strength (47.3%)

1 ounce (3cl) potato vodka – for example Luksusowa or Chopin although Chase make an English one too (alternatively, try and make your own!)

1/2 ounce (1.5cl) of Lillet Blanc/China Martini mix – or Lillet Blanc & chincona tincture/bitters with a dash of sugar syrup if necessary

Shake with ice for 15 seconds (or about 20 shakes) and strain the pale golden drink into a champagne goblet. Add a large thin slice of lemon peel.

.

The Vesper #2 (The SW3)

3 ounces (not parts) (9cl)  Gordon’s export (US) (40%) – or another London dry gin of a similar but not lower abv, for example Brokers, SW4 (if you like a bit of word play) or even Boodles (as it is named after the gentleman’s club Ian Fleming was a member of)

1 ounce (3cl) Stolichnaya (40%)or other Russian or Polish vodka (40-50%)

1/2 ounce (1.5 cl) Kina L’Avion D’oror Cocchi Americano, or indeed any Kina Lillet substitute of your choice

Shake with ice for 15 seconds (or about 20 shakes) and strain the colourless (or slightly golden) drink into a large martini glass. Add a large thin slice of lemon peel.

.

The Vesper must be the cocktail with the greatest number of factors for debate and thanks to the enduring popularity of Bond through 50 years of movies plenty of people willing to debate them! It may surprise some to learn then that Fleming, inventor of the Vesper, did not actually sample his creation until several months after – only to discover that it was “unpalatable”.

Luckily, these things are subjective and whilst the Vesper will have its detractors it will also continue to win new fans just as I honestly hope Daniel Craig can win me over as Bond in Skyfall this week (although he unfortunately won’t be doing it with his new drink of choice!).

and finally, as promised, a treat…

A.Skillz & Kraft Kuts – 50 years of Bond Minimix:

(If for some reason it is not working, you can also find it here)

Little did I know…

4 comments on “The Vesper: it’s a can of worms (not literally)

  1. DTS says:

    As someone who has spent a lot of time researching and thinking about the Vesper this is article is very nice, very nice indeed. Cheers!

  2. Cheers David,
    It’s a bit of an epic but I just didn’t want to leave any of it out. Your articles were invaluable in pointing me in the right direction and getting me thinking in greater detail about the Vesper so I’m glad you enjoyed it!

  3. JWS says:

    Made my take on the “Vesper” earlier this evening……Used Broker’s Gin (47 proof), 100-proof Smirnoff, and Cocchi Americano…made a GREAT drink!! Give it a try!!!

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