Friday, September 13, 2013

Cocktail of the Week: The Vesper

It’s not just that Ian Fleming stops Casino Royale dead to provide a drink recipe, but that the recipe is so specific.

“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.”

Brand awareness is a Fleming trademark, the author deciding that the labels in the clothes also make the man. Cultural historian Jeet Heer observed that “Fleming’s use of brand names, often dismissed as snobbery, was inseparable from his larger strengths as a storyteller,” while author Larry Beinhart praised the device as “a wonderful and indispensable trick … to create the illusion of verisimilitude.” Fleming pioneered a literary gambit that Bret Easton Ellis took to its excessive conclusion. Daniel Craig reels off the recipe in the 2006 film, even though Kina Lillet changed its name (and its formula) twenty years earlier.

What about the schizophrenic martini that is the Vesper itself? I enter into evidence the fact that once the drink’s namesake meets her fate in the novel, 007 never knocks back another one. The Vesper may not be an original creation, with some speculating Fleming appropriated the recipe from an acquaintance. But novelists are allowed to dissemble. When it comes to cocktails Fleming reminds me of Ernest Hemingway, another famous tippler credited with deep knowledge simply because he had pronounced idiosyncrasies. When Bond orders a martini he requests it in a “deep champagne goblet,” for crying out loud. I never understood the point of mixing gin and vodka, although Fleming deserves credit for being ahead of the curve. He wrote Casino Royale in 1952; six years earlier vodka constituted less than 1 percent of all spirits consumed in the United States. Bartender and Fleming fan Murray Stenson told me, “People always remember ‘shaken, not stirred’ but they don’t realize how rare vodka was at the time Bond asked for it. Ordering vodka was part of what made him an anti-hero.”

I became intrigued by Fleming’s folly anew with the availability of Cocchi Americano, a white moscato aperitif made with an infusion of cinchona bark. It’s a closer approximation of the taste of Kina Lillet than the product’s successor Lillet Blanc, possessing the bitterness that would have been present when Fleming made the drink.

Bartenders will advise you to shake a Vesper, Fleming’s instructions be damned. James Bond prefers shaken cocktails because he wants them very cold. So do I. I shake my martinis. I still stir the Vesper, because I’m perverse that way.

Choice of gin is crucial. The vodka will dilute it so you want a sturdy one that won’t fold under questioning. In the Fleming spirit, I’ll name my spirit: Tanqueray. The Cocchi Americano does make a difference, providing a spiciness and snap Lillet Blanc does not. Given the choice I’ll always take a gin martini over the Vesper, but the addition of an ingredient closer to Fleming’s preference gives his signature cocktail real character.

I like making the Vesper for another reason. It’s fitting that the creator of the most famous espionage series of all time would popularize a cocktail that acts as the perfect stealth operative. Reverse the ratios of the two primary ingredients and you have a concoction that awakens vodka drinkers to the possibilities of gin. The cool spirit they favor predominates with the hint of juniper acting like a sleeper agent, doing its valuable work in the shadows.

The Vesper

Ian Fleming, probably

2 ¼ oz. gin
¾ oz. vodka
½ oz. Cocchi Americano

Stir. Strain. Garnish with a large thin slice of lemon peel. Do not consume in a cane chair with the seat removed.