It Started with the Vesper

Lately I've been experimenting with "mixers". By "mixer" I mean aperitifs, liqueurs, and digestifs that almost always appear as secondary ingredients in a cocktail, but that one almost never thinks of drinking on their own. The intention here is to write a series of articles about each one.

It started with the Vesper, a mixed drink well known in cocktail circles. The recipe comes from an iconic scene in Ian Flemings's Casino Royale, where Bond instructs the bartender as follows:

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?

Please note the reference to Kina Lillet. It's the most interesting part of the whole business.

There are a couple of problems with following this recipe verbatim. Casino Royale was written in the 1950's, and the Gordon's that you could buy in the 1950's was not the same as the Gordon's that you can buy today. Furthermore, though there is a French aperitif known as Lillet Blanc, and though it is quite delicious in its own right, it bears little resemblance to the Kina Lillet mentioned in Bond's formulation; that one had a bitter kick, due to the added quinine that was later removed from the recipe in the 1980's, thus transforming it into the Lillet sold now.

So what do you do if you want to make a Vesper cocktail today? Glad you asked!

For the gin, it's pretty easy - pick something high proof, as Gordon's was something like 47% when Casino Royale was written. You'll want something fairly classic, where the flavour is mostly juniper - when it came to gin, I don't think the 50's did fancy.

For the vodka too, pick something stronger - vodka was usually sold at 100 proof in Bond's day.

For the Kina Lillet, it's a bit more complicated. As I mentioned, Kina Lillet effectively doesn't exist anymore. So what can you do?

It turns out that there are still products that have a similar flavour profile to 50's era Lillet. One example is Cocchi Americano, an Italian aperitif that still includes quinine in the recipe. By all accounts, it's the closest you're going to get to the Kina Lillet of bygone days, and it's delicious, even on its own. It's readily available in the U.S., though for a long time it was hard to come by in Montreal, where I live. Luckily, Montreal is relatively close to the U.S.

In any case, armed with your substitutes, you can easily make a Vesper cocktail the way James Bond would have wanted. If he weren't, you know, fictional.

So, is it any good?

Well...honestly...not really. I find that the Vesper makes for a better story than drink.

Let me rephrase. If you really, really like ultra dry martinis, containing little to no vermouth, then you'll probably like the Vesper, but probably not as much as an actual ultra dry martini.

If you like your martinis somewhat "wet", containing an appreciable amount of vermouth, then the Vesper might be a welcome change.

If you're like me and you're not a huge fan of dry martinis at all, then the Vesper probably won't be that impressive for you.

I find the Vesper tries a little too hard to be different things. It's kind of like a gin martini, but it has added vodka, so the gin isn't quite as sharp. It basically swaps out some flavour for strength - not a good trade, in my opinion. Also, despite the vodka, it's definitely nothing like a vodka martini - it contains way too much gin. And it's not very dry in the modern sense - it contains more than just a few drops of the Cocchi Americano. So I think the Vesper would kind of alienate a significant portion of the martini drinking population.

When I first made this cocktail, I found that I was having a hard time detecting the presence of the Cocchi Americano. I wasn't convinced it was a necessary component to the drink and, in fact, I've seen so-called Vespers on drink menus consisting of nothing but gin and vodka. To satisfy my curiosity, I proceeded to make two batches of the cocktail to sample side by side: one with the aperitif and one without.

I won't keep you in suspense: the Cocchi Americano is definitely detectable in the drink as...something, just not (to my taste) specifically as Cocchi Americano. The version without the aperitif lacks a certain smoothness that is present in the other. Bottom line: do not omit the aperitif. It definitely improves the drink.

At the end of the day, though, this just isn't one of my favourite concoctions. Dry martinis are, at the best of times (gin-based, with plenty of vermouth), bland affairs, designed to get you wasted quickly and efficiently (and don't get me started on vodka martinis). The Vesper has a little more spice to it, true, but it's still not very interesting.

In fact, the best thing about the Vesper was not the cocktail itself but my discovery of Cocchi Americano; that stuff is awesome, and deserves its own article. Stay tuned.