Drink of the Week: The Vesper

The VesperThis was the recipe I’d always planned to do right around now. By “now,” I originally meant before the release of the first James Bond movie in several years and/or right around the 50th anniversary of the 007 film series. Even so, I managed to miss the fact that the opening weekend of “Skyfall” was last weekend and not this weekend, so we’re a bit late.

This despite the fact that I and my Bullz-Eye compatriots have spent — and are spending — a fair amount of time actually writing up the Bond films for this very blog. (Check out the Bondian fan hub here.) Fortunately, the movie is turning out to be the most successful film in the uber-franchise in a long while — how long probably depends on whether you bother to adjust for inflation — so it’s going to be around awhile. That means the Bond celebration will also continue.

The Vesper, I should say, is a tricky and ironic drink among late period cocktail classics. Since it debuted in the very first James Bond novel,1953′s Casino Royale, and was created for 007 author Ian Fleming by his friend, Ivar Bryce, a fellow real-life spy, the supercool authenticity factor is off the charts. The scene in the 2006 film version where Bond finally orders the drink some 53 years after it was first invented was a special treat for diehard spy fans and cocktail lovers, and I’m both.

The downside here is that there are issues relating to the ever formulating changes in booze brands that has made the idea of the Vesper a bit more enthralling than the actual drink usually is. We’ll get to those, and a bit more history, after the very, very strong recipe below.

First, however, a word to wise boozer. If you drink a whole Vesper, you really should be done for the night. Mere mortals should not drink like functioning dipsomaniac superspies. You may want to consider cutting the portions here in half or pouring this drink into two glasses for you and a friend.

The Vesper

3 ounces gin (90 proof or above)
1 ounce vodka (100 proof or close, probably)
1/2 ounce Lillet Blanc
1-2 dashes Angostura bitters
1 lemon twist (garnish)

Combine your ingredients in cocktail shaker with a sufficiency of ice. Though heretical cocktail snobs will tell you to stir, this is an Ian Fleming cocktail and Mr. Fleming would certainly have you shake the drink. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass or, if you really want to be classical, do as Bond asked the barman in the novel and serve it in a deep champagne goblet. Add your lemon twist, sip and surrender your car keys to the nearest trustworthy soul. Watch out for double agents.

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In the scene in the novel (included in the wiki I linked to above), CIA agent Felix Leiter expresses some skepticism about the as-yet unnamed Vesper, which Bond later names for the first of his two true loves, Vesper Lynd. It is a very big drink and not for pikers. It also a drink that, as cocktail historian David Wondrich and many others have admitted, hasn’t aged terribly well for a number of reasons.

First of all, all the ingredients have changed. Bond specifically requests Gordon’s Gin. Though it’s no longer considered on the high-end of the gin scale, I actually quite like today’s value-priced Gordon’s, but the flavor of today’s version can’t be the same as was back in ’53. Gordon’s is now only 80 proof. Back then, it was a higher proof and most, Wondrich included, now suggest using Tanqueray. This time around, I used the similarly high proof Beefeater, which seemed a bit more classical.

As for vodka, Wondrich and others seem to assume it would have been 100 proof. At $26.00 a bottle, I’m simply too cheap to buy 100 Stolichnaya, so I went with the $16.00 100 proof Smirnoff. I’ve never really been sold on Stoli and I doubt Bond or Mr. Fleming would have drunk a communist vodka.

Moving down the list of ingredients, I love Lillet Blanc. In fact, maybe my favorite thing about the Vesper is that it introduced me to this intriguing aperitif wine and occasional cocktail ingredient; it tastes like dry vermouth and sweet vermouth made love and birthed an independent-minded female child. However, it also apparently isn’t what it once was. Mr. Bond’s original recipe calls for the now long-gone Kina Lillet, which we are told had a bit more quinine than the present day Lillet Blanc.

That leads us to the use of the bitters, which are an attempt — some would argue a rather lame attempt — to compensate for the low level of quinine. Folks with more time and money than I have been known to actually purchase quinine powder. Since I’m not fighting a case of malaria right now, I chose not to.

So, what do I think of the Vesper? I’ve made this drink probably 10 times over the years and ordered it a few times in bars and, with a couple of exceptions, I’ve been disappointed in the taste while always enjoying the effect. A regular martini, either of the gin or vodka variety, will usually go down more pleasantly. Even so, if you want to drink the one drink that James Bond created on the spot, well, you’ve got no other choice. You’ll drink it and, by the time you’ve finished all that booze, you’ll like it.

In any case, it’s only human to want to try the drink James Bond made up.

  

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