Although the Great Unwashed will nod knowingly and growl at you, "Of course. It's 007's Vodka Martini-shaken, not stirred," they know not whereof they speak. It is true, though, that when you think of the Vesper, James Bond is right there.
The first Bond book was Casino Royale. It was a straight-ahead adventure in keeping with all the books that would follow—and had little in common with the swinging Peter Sellers-David Niven movie that spoofed the wildly popular Sean Connery 007 films. Author Ian Fleming had Bond name the Vesper for love interest Vesper Lynd, later doomed as a double agent. Alas, in the literary sense, the drink was doomed with the woman. The misogynistic young Bond's last words in the book were, "The bitch is dead now," and he never drank another Vesper.
(Fleming specified Gordon's, but British Gordon's is not available in the States. The closest would be Tanqueray, but I like Boodles, named for the London men's club of which Fleming was a member.)
In time the "Kina," was dropped and the product was rechristened simply Lillet (Blanc). Caution! There are red and white versions of Lillet; the white is called for here. In 1985, Bruno Borie, owner of Bordeaux wine Chateau Ducru-Beaucaillou, bought Lillet Freres. The next year, to my utter chagrin, the newly renamed Lillet Company decreased the bitter quinine component. Last year, liquor industry giant Pernod Ricard acquired Lillet from Borie. My hope and request is that they do a special bottling of the old formulation and call it, again, Kina Lillet. I think it would sell. It'll sell to me!
As for the Vesper, as is so often the case, the author of the original recipe is in some dispute. Some credit bartender Gilberto Preti, but for that to have been the case he would've had to have created it in 1950—or earlier—for it to appear in the text of Casino Royale. Preti had only been bartending in London since 1960, as best I can determine.
William Hamilton of the New York Times cited a theory that an old friend and neighbor of Fleming's, oil magnate Ivor Bryce, had concocted it. In both instances, the material data and dates are always tellingly vague. Regardless, the cocktail, whatever its true origin, was a work of genius. Just enough vodka to smooth out the sharpness of the gin, and in lieu of the malty flavor of vermouth, he used a light quinquina (pronounced ken-keena)—a quinine, spice, fruit, and spirit-fortified wine—by the name of Kina (think quina) Lillet. This aperitif was smoother, slightly sweeter, and more flavorful than most dry vermouths and stands up admirably to the slightly tamped-down gin. A lemon twist spraying its oil onto the surface of the drink made it complete. Fleming liked it so well he had James Bond recite the entire recipe to a bartender at the Casino Royale. The 2006 film remake did as well.
This page created October 2009
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