February 16, 2011
“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.”
—Ian Fleming, Casino Royale
James Bond could do many things exceptionally–and simultaneously–well. His ability to disarm a nuclear weapon while driving a stickshift Aston Martin down a narrow cliffside road at 100 mph while dodging machine gun fire from enemies in an approaching helicopter while simultaneously pleasuring a Bond girl in the passenger seat, all with nary a millimeter’s shift in the fold of his always crisp-white pocket square, has helped forge Bond’s image as the epitome of the fictionalized ideal man. If you’re an American male college grad looking to upgrade your game by learning the gentlemanly arts, chances are you’ve taken a few pointers from 007, be it his personal style, flair with the ladies, or cool temperament in sticky situations.
But of all the things Bond is emulated for, there’s one which leaves much to be desired: the way he took his cocktails. Sure, the man is to be commended for his willingness to consume high alcohol spirits while on a risky assignment. Hell, most people won’t even have a beer during lunch. And he’s also to be commended for being mindful about the types of drinks he enjoys depending on the occasion, time of day, etc. But his choice of cocktails, and particularly his preferred method of preparation, need not be emulated.
Take the ultra-dry, “shaken, not stirred” vodka Martini. Many serious cocktail drinkers (men and women) consider this a drink for pussies (in a previous post I mentioned how Bond’s preferred Martini has become the false standard bearer for Martini preparation). I mean, if you’re going to drink a Martini, then have a real one, with gin. When I’m behind the stick, not a night passes without at least one guy ordering an “ultra-dry, ice-cold vodka Martini, shaken,” in the most hyper-masculine voice he can muster. Unfortunately what he doesn’t realize–what they never realize–is that he’s basically asking for a flavorless, massively watered down beverage. I mean, do you really think your 10oz. steakhouse Martini glass is all liquor?
Now it’s been pointed out to me by my friend, style maven, cocktailian extroardinaire, blogger, and all around swell guy Fredo Ceraso of Loungerati that Bond’s drinking decisions were an elaborate part of his cover, and enabled him to blend in the scene while remaining alert enough to execute the mission. Most guys, however, are on a mission to get laid, and not commit espionage, so ordering Martinis a la Bond is just a foolish display of faux grown-upness, like the little girl who dresses in her mother’s oversized clothing and imagines herself as a grown woman in front of the mirror.
So you might be asking why I’m featuring one of Bond’s cocktails if I find them so disagreeable? The answer is that in the world of cocktails, minor adjustments can be the difference between the sublime and the second-rate, and that’s what I intend to show here.
007 eventually settled on the name Vesper for the cocktail he described, naming it after Bond girl Vesper Lynd. As it stands, it’s a recipe for a very dry and flat tasting drink. Sure you get flavor from gin, but the Lillet (which is not the same as the Kina Lillet asked for; Kina Lillet’s not been available for quite some time) is hardly noticeable. And then it’s shaken, which further waters down the drink and destroys the last thing the drink had going for it, it’s mouthfeel (texture).
Shake ingredients with ice and strain into a cocktail coupe or Martini glass and twist lemon peel over and into drink.
Now let’s set upon improving this drink. You could certainly start by stirring it instead of shaking, but we would still need to go further. David Wondrich, of Esquire magazine, recommends flipping the gin and vodka proportions, so that it’s 3 oz vodka to 1 oz gin. At first glance this seems counter-intuitive since we’re trying to bump up the character of this drink, not make it more bland by increasing the proportion of the most tame ingredient, the vodka. But Wondrich reasons that the gin tramples the Lillet, so switching the gin and vodka proportions allows the Lillet some room on stage to play out its role. After having tried this version, I still think it could be elevated a touch more by adding a few dashes of orange bitters. The bitters add much needed depth as they play up the gin and Lillet and give some backbone to the vodka.
3 oz vodka (I recommend Purity, a Swedish vodka made from winter wheat and barley)
1 oz gin (I recommend Beefeater Winter if you can get it)
1/2 oz Lillet Blanc (Cocchi Americano would be an even better option if available)
4 dashes Bitter Truth Orange Bitters
lemon peel for garnish
Stir! Stir! Stir ingredients in a mixing glass filled with cracked ice. Strain into a chilled cocktail coupe or Martini glass and twist lemon peel over and into drink.
It helps to use a vodka with some character, which is why I chose Purity. Karlsson’s is also a good choice but it’s potato-based, and Bond was actually onto something when he mentioned that a grain-based vodka would be slightly better in this cocktail. I also really like the unique botanicals in the new Beefeater Winter gin offering (cinnamon, nutmeg, pine, in addition to traditional juniper), which stands up excellently in this cocktail despite the single ounce portion.
Mais n’enculons pas des mouches.
*Got a cocktail question? Hit me on twitter @paystyle, email me at payman(at)lifesacocktail(dot)com, or simply drop me a comment below.