The bittersweet conclusion the Daniel Craig era in No Time to Die has led many of us to revisit the 007 canon – from the cars, to the suits, to the cocktails. One particular item on James’ longstanding bar tab continues to fascinate more than any other, his signature drink, the Vesper.
'A dry martini,' he said. 'One. In a deep champagne goblet.'
'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.
In the 1953 novel Casino Royale, author Ian Fleming has our favourite secret agent order this super-sized sharpener to steel himself before a high-stakes card game. He later names it after the beautiful Vesper Lynd, who (spoiler) ultimately betrays. Probably why Bond never orders one again. However, that doesn’t stop the drink being dusted off and slotted into cocktail menus every time he returns to our screens. But there’s just one problem, it’s a notoriously difficult drink to get right. What should be a bracing eye-opener can easily melts into something over-diluted and insipid.
Not to worry though, there is one man who can teach us all how to make a better Vesper and his name is Palazzi, Alessandro Palazzi. The top man at Dukes Bar in London’s St James for more than fifteen years, Signor Palazzi is a Martini expert, one the world’s great bartenders, and an Ian Fleming buff to boot. Just the man to explain why Ian Fleming would cook up such a strange Martini.
Recreating the Original Vesper
‘It’s difficult,’ Alessandro begins ‘because the ingredients no longer exist.’
‘Gordon’s is not the same as it was then – you can find bottles from the 40s and 50s at auction but you can pay up to £200-£300. It’s much different than the Gordon’s today but I still wouldn’t pay that.’
Though modern Gordon’s is a fine choice for a gin and tonic, it’s lost a bit of alcoholic strength over the years and with it some of the heft necessary for making Martinis. So, unless you’re willing to shell out for a vintage bottling, a modern alternative must be sought. Then there’s the Lillet to consider.
‘Kina Lillet does not exist anymore, the family changed the recipe in the 70s so Kina Lillet became Lillet Blanc. You can also buy bottles in an auction but the value is between £800 and £1,000, which is insane.’ Though a few firms offer alternatives to the slightly bitter Lillet of yesteryear, Alessandro was forced to find his own substitute for this lost ingredient. More on that later.
‘Vodka wasn’t a part of cocktails then – if you look at these old cocktail books there’s gin, Cognac, and whisky, maybe a bit of rum. But Fleming was in Russia in ’33 and ’39 – first as a journalist and then as a banker. He was very fond of the Russian culture, but the vodka he tried there was probably more moonshine than fine vodka, because the people used to make their own. I think if you found a vodka that was made in those days and made a Vesper it wouldn’t be very pleasant.’
So, it seems the Vesper needs to be reinvented from the ground up. The version served at Dukes is not quite like the one that appears in Casino Royale, however it does manage to maintain the spirit of the original and pay fitting homage to the great Ian Fleming. Good news for us it’s also surprisingly easy to make at home.
‘I use No.3 gin from Berry Brothers because I believe that you need a good, honest London Dry gin like they used to be in those days – 46% ABV, six botanicals. The company has been based in St James since 1698 and this was the playground of Fleming; he used to come to Dukes, he used to go to Jermyn Street to have his suits made. For a good Vesper you need a proper London dry and No.3 for me is perfect.’
Berry Bros. & Rudd is the oldest wine merchant in Britain and remains family owned to this day. Their No.3 London Dry Gin (Waitrose - £36) is a fantastic all-rounder with more than enough personality to work in spirit-forward serves like Martinis.
‘At the time of Fleming, cocktails were only drunk in the private clubs. They weren’t common like now, only the elite knew about cocktails. Fleming knew about drinks, he knew the etiquette. This is why, from my understanding, he kind of switches it.’
‘In the 40s you wouldn’t drink vodka, you wouldn’t touch it, unless you were Russian or Polish and you’re following your tradition. It just wasn’t something the gentleman drank. Also, you would drink a Martini as an aperitif – you wouldn’t drink like Bond does where every five minutes he asks for a vodka Martini. Bond breaks the rules.’
In search of the perfect vodka for the rule-breaking Bond, Alessandro delves deep into his creator’s backstory and finds what he believes to be the basis for Bond’s I’ll-fated love, Vesper Lynd.
‘People think Fleming during the war was a spy. Fleming was not a spy, he was PA to the navy commander who was in charge of the spying. In my Vesper I use one measure of Potocki, a Polish vodka. And I choose this vodka because of the young Polish girl who was the first female spy for the allies to go over to the enemy – she was called Krystyna Skarbek. You have the gossip saying that Fleming and Krystyna had an affair for one year. I personally don’t believe this, I think he met her and was just mesmerized by how brave this woman was and it inspired him. So this girl, Krystyna Skarbek – I believe was the inspiration for Vesper.’
Potocki (The Whisky Exchange - £32.95) is a serious vodka, unfiltered and creamy. When combined with dry gin it provides texture, a subtle nutty flavor and a grounding sense of earthiness. The question still remains as to why vodka and gin, but Alessandro still has wisdom to dispense.
The Kina substitute
The original Kina Lillet was a French fortified wine, infused with botanicals including cinchona bark – the bitter flavor in traditional tonic water. In the Vesper it performs roughly the function of the traditional dry vermouth in a Martini. As this in-demand wine remains curiously discontinued, Dukes bar had to seek an alternative to re-invent the Vesper.
‘We worked with Sacred at their distillery in Highgate to create a dry vermouth for the Vesper – It’s amber, similar to Lillet, but all the Botanicals are British. We wanted to make an English vermouth as an homage to him, to Fleming.’
Though the Sacred English Amber Vermouth (Direct - £18.95) was initially only available at Dukes, it’s now widely available – allowing everyone to make the perfect Vesper at home. With these three ingredients in place, all that remains is to bring it together.
Not Shaken, Not Stirred
‘At Dukes we don’t shake or stir the Martini – if you think about it, you don’t need to, because the most important thing is the temperature. We keep our vodka and our gin in the freezer and our vermouth in the fridge.’
If you’re taking this approach to making the Vesper, it’s important to give your spirits plenty of time to chill down. Ideally you’ll have them in the freezer by the morning on the day you’re planning some Martini time.
‘The first, most important thing, is to freeze your glass – the glass has to be as cold as you can manage. A Martini is something you take your time to drink and you want it to stay cold all of that time. It’s exactly the same as if you have a dinner party and you want to talk to your friends you serve the food on a very hot plate.’
Once you have your frozen spirits and glass, you can simply eyeball half a measure of vermouth, one measure of vodka, and three measures of gin. Using standard British measures, this works out to 100ml of spirit – a large portion by any reckoning – but you can always maintain the ratios and make a week-night sized version if you so require. As Alessandro himself points out ‘Can you imagine – he consumes all that alcohol and goes off to spy? It’s impossible, he would be dead before he started!’
‘I finish with an orange peel, not a lemon like he says in the book. Because the orange oil on your nose is sweet, you have this beautiful aroma but the actual taste is bitter. So when you drink you get the contrast – the first note is sweet but then you get that wonderful, aperitif bitterness. Like with a Negroni when you get that bitter and sweet all at once.’
The Double Agent
This version of the Vesper isn’t just a great drink, it’s easy to recreate at home. If you’re keen to try it before investing in all three bottles, Berry Bros & Rudd has even produced a pre-mixed version (Master of Malt - £29.95) to make things even simpler.
After being fully briefed on the history and best-practice of the Vesper Martini, just one burning question remains. Why does Fleming mix gin and vodka?
‘I think, with this recipe he’s trying to tell us before we figure it out that Vesper is a double agent. This is why the vodka is there, because especially in those days when you mention vodka you think of Russia. Gordon’s was the symbol of England at the time, it was the gin of the moment. I think that’s why includes the recipe, he’s trying to tell us something, it’s not that he was actually drinking it. The fact that you do a Martini with two different white spirits, it’s like a double agent.’
There you have it, a literary device, a cocktail, the perfect way to toast 007 and the passing of an era. Long live James Bond.