“I had never tasted anything so cool and clean. They made me feel civilized.” Ernest Hemingway on martinis, in A Farewell to Arms
Sitting here this morning listening to Adele’s new Skyfall theme song – a definite callback to the heady days of Shirley Bassey after the well-meaning but ill-advised collaboration that was Jack White and Alicia Keys’ “Another Way to Die” for Quantum of Solace – it’s a struggle to encapsulate in less than several thousand long-winded words exactly the impact James Bond has had on my life, how he has been a reliable friend in darker times and something of a model for far more men than just I as what exactly it is to be a man. I can admit that Ian Fleming is probably the third in the holy trinity of writers who have helped me forge my own style, along with Gene Roddenberry and Aaron Sorkin – less in the overall philosophical approach of the latter two but more in how to shape narrative, twist one’s plots and compel readers to turn pages. But enough about all that. It’s James Bond Day and it’s an occasion to celebrate literature and cinema’s most enduring secret agent. Today I’m veering away from the usual heavy stuff and talking about drinks. In particular, James Bond’s drink of choice: the Vesper martini. As originally described in the Casino Royale novel, to be served in a deep champagne goblet:
“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?”
I love martinis. They are a drink of sophistication and elegance – with a martini glass in your hand it’s natural to find yourself standing a little straighter, feeling a suaveness surging through your veins. Perhaps they even brace you with enough confidence to approach the voluptuous brunette in the slinky dress at the end of the bar who might just be a Russian agent. The effort to prepare the martini just right, as opposed to say, simply pouring a scotch over some ice, only adds to its charm. Admittedly, the definition has gotten a bit fuzzy as they’ve become more popular, to the point where simply putting anything in the right glass is considered a “martini.” But even though I might enjoy the diversion of a chocolate or berry martini from time to time, when it comes to the martini experience in its purest form, you have to go back to something like the Vesper.
Ingredients for the perfect Vesper are not as easily found as you might think, making the experience of one a rare sensory pleasure. The first wrinkle in the ointment is the Kina Lillet. Lillet is not vermouth, it is what’s called an aperitif wine. Kina Lillet, unfortunately, isn’t made anymore. The substitute is Lillet Blanc, and even that can be tricky, but not impossible to track down. The fortunate thing about it is unless you are planning on having two or three of these daily, one Lillet bottle should last a good while. Your choice of gin and vodka matter also – I’ve read that the process of manufacturing them has changed somewhat since Ian Fleming’s time, and that the typical Gordon’s or Smirnoff/Stoli/whatever else available commercially are not as strong as they would have been in 1953. The impact for me seems to be largely in the vodka. 80 proof is the strongest you can purchase in Canada, so I’ve made it a point to stop in at the duty free whenever we’re vacationing across the border and pick up the 100 proof blue-label Smirnoff. I have noticed, and those I’ve served it to have commented also, that the stronger vodka seems to cut the intensity of the gin somewhat and make for a smoother drink. Above all, it’s critical that the mixture remain ice cold – a warm Vesper can taste a little bit like lighter fluid. I find it helps a little to pre-chill the glasses, then pack the shaker with as much ice as it can reasonably handle before adding the ingredients and shaking away. If one measure as described above = one shot, you will usually have enough to serve two completed drinks (depending how you pour) and don’t forget the critical slice of lemon peel. Or, you can try the Felix Leiter variation from the movie: “Bring me one as well, keep the fruit.” I find that the citrus oils from the freshly sliced lemon are a nice accent though, and after all, the best way to enjoy a Vesper is just the way Bond ordered it.
The quote accompanying the photo is accurate – the Vesper spoils you, it’s that good. Next to it, appletinis and crantinis and other varieties of fruitinis might as well be watered-down Kool-Aid. The Vesper is more than a drink; it’s a statement, a marking of one’s territory as a man of refined taste, someone who can cut through the superficial and home in on the richness of life lurking beneath the surface distractions. There is a world-weariness to James Bond the character – he is essentially a contradiction of a man who is cynical about civilization but still finds it within himself to fight for his ideals of good versus evil. In his reflective moments, Vesper in hand, the potent potion trickling through his bloodstream, he may find himself questioning the point of it all – why fight on, why continue posing as St. George, when there will always be another bad guy – another dragon – around the next corner? It is in the fight itself that the resolve of one’s character is proven, win or lose, and like it or not, Bond is not Bond without that fight. Nor are we. (See, I can’t escape the philosophical stuff even when I try.)
Happy 50th James Bond – have a Vesper on me.