Cocktailblogging: James Bond Edition

Inspired by a comment from BradK yesterday, I decided that I wanted to be James Bond and drink a Vesper.

So I bought a bottle of Lillet, and while I was waiting for it to chill, I went back and did a little research. This proved useful. The actual formula is: 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. And stare down the villain like the badass you are the whole time you’re ordering it. Or, if you’re going to go back all the way to the original novel Casino Royale:

“A dry martini,” he [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.

Yes it is, Felix. But it turns out, every portion of Fleming’s original description needs analysis because we’re dealing with something nearly sixty years old here and it turns out that in the world of cocktails as in the world of espionage, one should take nothing for granted. Let’s start with the glass.

Cocktail glasses in the 1950’s looked like they do today. We call them “martini glasses” now, but it’s the same shape — a conical bowl atop a stem with a round base. But back then, they were smaller, and typically held between three to three and a half ounces of drink. They have grown over time and now hold between four and five ounces. Mine are at the large end of that. In the novel, Bond orders his drink in a champagne goblet, which would have held five ounces, or six if filled to the brim which of course a suave operator like Bond would never do. So happily, a standard modern martini glass will fit the bill perfectly both for shape and volume.

And dear Reader, please chill your cocktail glasses before using them. Cocktails, especially martinis and their variants, must be cold, clean, and strong. It’s easy for the lazy bartender to muck up a drink by way of its vessel.

Next, the vermouth substitute. It’s no longer Kina Lillet Blanc, just Lillet. This is an aperitif wine, which means that it’s mostly wine, with some stronger stuff added to it for flavor. It still comes in Rogue and Blanc but the company has been bought and sold and it has changed its formula over time. The contemporary mixture for Lillet Blanc is sweeter than the way it was made in the 1950’s despite a lower sugar content. There are those who claim that Cocchi Americano, an Italian aperitif made from Italian and French white wines and a mixture of citrus and herb spirits, is the closest thing available to the old Kina Lillet formla. I don’t have any quinine powder at home, and it was enough trouble to find the Lillet. A dash of Angoustora bitters is the usual fix for this, and it darkens the otherwise pale yellow liquid nicely to something approximating the golden color described by Fleming.

Gordon’s gin has been reformualted also, reducing its potency on its standard issue from 94 proof to 80 proof, and mysteriously reducing its herbal flavors. Gin snobs insist that Tanqueray comes closer to capturing the original flavor of Gordon’s from the old days than the stuff with the Gordon’s name on it now. This was handy for me, because I didn’t have any Gordon’s on hand, but I did have Tanqueray.

There is also some debate about whether it is necessary to burn or char the lemon peel. I did not char mine; Fleming did not describe Bond requesting the lemon be burnt, and the movie does not illustrate the lemon being burnt. Fortunately for me, I happened to have a Meyer lemon on hand, which is about the best sort of lemon you can use for this purpose: of the various varieties of lemon I have tried, it has both the most sweetness and the most tartness. A ripe Meyer lemon can be sliced and eaten raw, like an orange.

Also, you must chill every liquor. The gin and the Lillet will taste funny if served too warm, and if mixed too warm, they will cause too much water to melt off the ice. You can allow your gin and vodka to rise to room temperature when not in use as long as you ice them down again a few hours before serving, but as you should do with vermouth, once you open the Lillet, keep it refrigerated. The stuff is mostly white wine, after all, and it will vinegar on you if you do not either use it all quickly or keep it cold. And becasue it’s wine and only about 30 proof, it can turn to ice in your freezer, which will ruin the liquor and can shatter the bottle, so the refrigerator is the better place for it.

The resulting drink turns out to have a warm golden color to it and a strong citrus flavor. Marvelous. And a bit much for nine-thirty on a weeknight.

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32 thoughts on “Cocktailblogging: James Bond Edition

    • Elementary, my dear Tod. The Wikipedia article indicated that the 1986 reformulation of Lillet decreased the sugar content but kept the quinine content the same. At the same time the cocktail-snob websites all insisted that the bitters were necessary because of it. Ergo, decreased sugar but more sweetness. The residual sugar is processed all the way out of a dry white wine during fermentation, so by process of elimination the need for the use of bitters must derive from the citrus and herbal distillates added to the wine blend which produces the distinctive taste of contemporary Lillet Blanc.

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  1. Litigation aside, which is a totally different matter, I don’t see on what planet it’s morally okay for an employer or potential employer to use coercion and implicit threats to see something you had no intention of showing her. How is this much different than asking to read a diary?

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  2. Thank you Burt, for the cite.  I am both flattered and ashamed that I mistyped such a simple recipe.  It is indeed 3 measures of Gin and not 2, though a direct reply to my comment from Alan Scott claimed than even then the taste of the Gin was too strong for him.  When I had first heard the concoction described in C.R. my first thought was Gin and Vodka…together?  But after trying one (or was it three?) it began to grow on me.  While it’s typically Vodka martinis these days I used to enjoy Gin, usually Sapphire (though Tanquery is quite lovely as well).  The Vesper makes for a nice joining of the two.

    And thanks for sharing the research on the Lillet.  I seem to recall reading something about the recipe having changed over the years but not to the degree you found.  That is a shame.

    I might have to disagree with you on the chilling of the bottles (other than the Lillet) however.  When drinking such strong libations, a small amount of water melting from the ice cubes during the brief stirring process (10 – 15 seconds max) helps to thin out the otherwise straight liquor ever so little.  It should never be allowed to sit in the ice though nor should it be shaken as that will “bruise” the poor thing, which is a corksniffer term for ice shards floating on top of the cocktail.  Note that the small amount of water introduced is consistent for the life of the cocktail, unlike something on the rocks where the drink becomes steadily more water and less cocktail in all-too-brief of a time — a situation usually remedied when someone offers to “freshen you drink”.

    But of course the professional Martini drinker will have a dedicated space in the freezer drawer reserved exclusively for keeping the chilled glasses.  You can wing it in a pinch by pouring cold water over ice cubes and allowing the glass to sit for a few minutes, though the final product ends up slippery wet and a bit untidy looking.  Any bartender that strains a Martini into a warm glass should be taken out back and put down for the good of society.

    I’ll look forward to your next mini-dissertation on Absinthe.  Meanwhile, the class assignment is to watch Ken Burns’ very thorough and entertaining documentary Prohibition if you haven’t already.

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