The Vesper

Um … y’know, my mixological experimentation and voyage of further discovery through the world of cocktails and spirits will only go so far, and will never include The Pork Martini.

However, it most certainly will include a glass of Lillet Blanc over ice, with a slice of orange. Lillet is a marvelous French aperitif wine, fortified with brandy and flavored with fruits and herbs. The bouquet and flavor are redolent of oranges, honey, a hint of lime and even a tiny wisp of mint, and the flavor is wonderfully bright. It also has the dubious distinction of being the preferred aperitif of Dr. Hannibal Lecter; he may have been a monster, a psychopath and a completely remorseless and cunning murderer, but did have exquisite taste … ya gotta give him that. There’s also a Lillet Rouge which I haven’t tried yet, but at about $12 a bottle, it’s not too big a bite out of the wallet to give it a try.

Lillet Blanc is not nearly as herbal-tasting as vermouth — in fact, I really don’t care for vermouth at all — and I find it far more agreeable both as an aperitif and even as the flavoring in a Martini.

In fact, the Vesper — the infamous, so-called “James Bond Martini” as described in Casino Royale — uses Lillet as part of its flavor base. [Although I did at the time of this writing like to shake my Martinis to get them a bit colder (before I learned of the joys of the silky texture of a stirred Martini), Bond and everyone else is full of hooey about that “stirring bruises the gin” crap. You can’t bruise gin.]

[UPDATE: March 20, 2007] Sunday night Wes and I watched the new “Casino Royale,” which for my money may well be the best James Bond movie ever, or at least since Connery. Nothing less than a rebooting of the franchise, it was also exciting and grim and brilliantly acted by Daniel Craig. One thing the filmmakers went out of their way to include from the original novel was the so-called “James Bond Martini,”, a.k.a. The Vesper (named after the lead female character and Bond’s love interest). Here’s how it went in the novel (and the film as well):

“A dry martini,” [Bond] said. “One. In a deep champagne goblet.”

“Oui, monsieur.”

“Just a moment. 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?”

“Certainly, monsieur.” The barman seemed pleased with the idea.

“Gosh, that’s certainly a drink,” said Leiter.

Bond laughed. “When I’m…er…concentrating,” he explained, “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.”

Thing is … though the franchise has been rebooted such that James Bond is newly promoted to Double-O status (i.e., a license to kill), the film is not a period piece; it’s set in modern times. As David Wondrich points out, things have changed in 54 years. Gordon’s gin was 94 proof in the 1950s; it has subsequently been reduced in proof to 80. (This is a trend among distillers that I despise, as it doesn’t just lower the alcohol content, it changes the flavor profile and the balance as well).

Bond, when he drank vodka, drank Stolichnaya, which was 100 proof back then. And for perhaps the most important touch, “Kina Lillet” doesn’t exist anymore, not as it did in Ian Fleming’s 1953 novel. The Lillet of that era had more of a bitter tang to it with the presence of a small amount of quinine, which was removed in 1985; the aperitif wine was recast as “Lillet blanc,” which is what we have now.

Wondrich suggests using Tanqueray (still a glorious 94 proof), and digging a bit to find 100 proof Stoli (which is still available). His final touch, which I love, is to add a pinch of quinine powder, available from Tenzing Momo, who sell it in convenient one-ounce quantities.

Here’s how you now make a proper Vesper.

The Vesper Cocktail

3 ounces Tanqueray gin.
1 ounce 100 proof Stolichnaya vodka.
1/2 ounce Lillet blanc.
1 pinch quinine powder, about 1/16th teaspoon.

Combine with ice in a cocktail shaker; shake for 12-15 seconds until the drink is Arctic cold, the shaker is frosted and your hands hurt. Double-strain into a deep champagne goblet, large cocktail glass or 2 smaller cocktail glasses (as it’s big enough to split). Garnish with a thin slice of lemon peel.

One tidbit from the movie that apparently differs from the novel:

Bartender: “Shaken or stirred, monsieur?”

Bond: “Do I look like I give a damn?”

Heh, nice touch.