I’m Listening To: The Look of Love by Dusty Springfield (1967)
Welcome to my new semi-regular feature on the various cocktails that have been imbibed by both the cinematic and literary incarnations of the world’s most famous alcoholic: James Bond. And what better place to start than the propriety Bond cocktail, the Vesper? The creation of Ian Fleming and Ivar Bryce, the Vesper tastes perhaps surprisingly good considering its ingredients. Though, with Fleming being a noted drinker himself, he no doubt refined and perfected the recipe himself…
“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. I’m going to patent it when I can think of a good name.”
James Bond, Casino Royale (1953)
James Bond thankfully did not get round to patenting the Vesper. Presumably international espionage/raging sex, alcohol, and gambling addictions/crashing his DB5 into a wall like that one scene in Goldfinger got in the way. Either way, the drink (along with poker and tying ) saw a surge in popularity after the release of the film adaptation of Casino Royale in 2006. It’s never really left after that, and I’m pleased to see it becoming a cocktail menu mainstay again in recent years – particularly whenever a new Bond film is released. I got utterly pissed on about six or seven Vespers while at the cinema watching Spectre, and still have genuinely no idea what happened for a good half of that movie.
However, I’ve seen all kinds of abominations of this thing in bars – generally substituting the three measures of gin for two, in order to make the drink cheaper and more appealing to a mass drinking audience. I’ve also seen it called a ‘Vespa’, and have no idea what that is all about. The following recipe shows how to make the Vesper properly, as Fleming intended. I say Fleming quite deliberately, as the original ‘Vesper’ was apparently a reference to the canonical hour of the same name – the ‘violet hour’ – rather than to the literary character. Fleming was served this original cocktail, a drink consisting of frozen rum with fruit and herbs which sounds similar to the modern frozen Daiquiri, by an elderly couple in Jamaica (where Fleming lived and wrote at his estate, Goldeneye).
Do not be fooled into thinking that it is easy drinking – it is every bit as unforgiving to a novice drinker as its ingredients list would suggest! I once went to a James Bond-themed film quiz, and the ‘hard lads’ who turned up in costume in Daniel Craig-esque Casino Royale tiny swimming trunks (in Newcastle…in the middle of November) couldn’t even handle a few sips of the Vespers they ordered. Be warned.
The real trick to ensure potability of the Vesper is to make sure that it is well shaken, to ensure proper dilution of the ice – this keeps the drink from tasting overpoweringly alcoholic.
Basically, your Vesper should contain a high-quality, (preferably) high-proof gin. The gin makes up the majority of this cocktail – and so while it should be potent, it shouldn’t overpower the entire drink. For this reason, I would advise avoiding any excessively floral gins (such as Bombay Sapphire, Brooklyn Gin, or Botanist for example). Go with something clear-tasting and smooth – my personal favourite choices for the gin are Beefeater 24, Tanqueray Ten, Broker’s, and Portobello Road. All of these are incidentally also excellent choices for a standard dry martini!
A 100-proof vodka (such as export-strength Smirnoff Blue) is the standard go-to choice for those wishing to emulate the OTT alcoholism of Fleming’s late 50s Bond. Personally, I prefer something a bit more approachable. You can never really go wrong with Stolichnaya, which is pound-for-pound one of the best vodkas out there. If you want to be a bit more extravagant, go for Belvedere. Just try and steer clear of Smirnoff Red Label and similar. I don’t care if Pierce Brosnan drank it in Tomorrow Never Dies – that film. The 90s was a dearth of taste in general, it seems. And I shouldn’t have to tell you at this point to not use any of the jet fuel that masquerades as supermarket own-brand vodka these days. Just don’t do it.
For bonus Fleming points, though, go with Chase Vodka. This is one of the few decent-quality vodkas on the market these days made with potatoes rather than grain – which is what the vodka in Bond’s Vesper was made from (‘…but if you can get vodka made with grain instead of potatoes, you will find it still better’). The overall feel of the vodka is a bit greasier than a standard grain vodka, but the flavour is certainly an interesting change from the norm.
To call the third ingredient in this drink “the rest” is perhaps being a bit derisory, as it is essentially its flavour that should give the Vesper its distinctive “bitter aftertaste” as the drinks’ namesake Vesper Lynd put it in the cinematic Casino Royale.
While a simple, high quality dry French vermouth (such as Noilly Prat or Dolin) can work in a pinch, the resulting drink tastes too clean and smooth. While this is an appealing drink in itself due to its drinkability, it isn’t really the taste of a true Vesper. Perhaps a Vesper made with vermouth should be classed as a whole new cocktail entirely – a ‘The Bitch is Dead’, perhaps?
Your two real choices are Lillet Blanc and Cocchi Americano. Lillet sadly discontinued the Kina Lillet specified by Bond some years ago, and Lillet Blanc isn’t quite as appealingly bitter as the original. If using Lillet Blanc, make sure you add a few drops of bitters to the mix in order to recreate some of that original flavour (Boker’s Bitters are my personal recommendation, though simple Angostura Bitters will suffice).
Those lucky few who have managed to taste Lillet Blanc, however, insist that Cocchi Americano is the closest like-for-like replacement available on the market today. I’d advise tracking this down if you can find it (The Whisky Exchange currently stock it for those in Europe) – the authenticity that it affords the drink simply can’t be replicated otherwise.
1/2 oz/15ml Lillet Blanc* OR 1/2 oz/15ml Cocchi Americano
Ice (good quality, cubed)
*If using Lillet Blanc, add two dashes of bitters to recreate the bitter taste of the original
1) Fill your cocktail shaker with good quality ice
2) Add the gin, vodka, and fortified wine
3) Shake well until the exterior of the cocktail shaker has begun to freeze (if using a metal shaker) or until the drink feels adequately chilled (if using a Boston shaker)
4) Strain into a chilled cocktail coupe (or champagne glass, for full Fleming authenticity)
5) Cut a large, thin slice of lemon peel and express (twist) it over the drink, before dropping it into the glass.
6) Make Mads Mikkelsen cry by beating him at poker. Who wears a black shirt with a tuxedo, anyway? He was asking for it.