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?
Thus Ian Fleming created one of the most iconic cocktails in fiction—the Vesper—in his first James Bond novel, Casino Royale. It is the first and last time the drink is mentioned in print, and it wasn't seen on screen until Daniel Craig's Bond orders one in the book's film adaptation in 2006. Nevertheless, the Vesper is an iconic cocktail.
Yet for all its notoriety, according to Jake Burger, master distiller at Portobello Gin in West London, it's also a cocktail that's unlikely to have been served correctly in the last 30 years. But, for me at least, that is about to change. Burger has promised a taste of the Vesper as Fleming created it and as the fictional Bond would have tasted it.
"It's remarkable that this drink has become so famous and so indelibly linked with our hero," says Burger. "Especially when you consider that for more than half of the drink's lifetime, it has been nigh on impossible to make the drink, or at least to make it properly."
The reason you're unlikely to have ever tasted a real Vesper (at least if you're under the age of 48 and didn't start drinking cocktails until you were of legal age) is due to its enigmatic third ingredient: Kina Lillet. Yes, as you might guess, there's a backstory.
"Kina Lillet is a French wine-based aperitif that first appeared in 1887," Burger explains. "It's an aromatised wine, in this case a Semillon from Bordeaux, which is fortified by adding liqueurs to it and is then left to age in a barrel for several months. The problem is that they changed the recipe."
At least one of the liqueurs added is made from Peruvian quinine, used in tonic water. Some claim that Kina Lillet was reformulated to include less quinine and so to be less bitter. Others suggest that the new recipe has less sugar. Burger has another hypothesis.
"Kina Lillet is supposed to be golden in colour. My theory is that the old version was unstable and didn't last long. In my decades-long search for a drinkable bottle of the original Kina Lillet, I found lots that looked like this."
He pulls out a bottle of a claret-coloured liquid.
"This would have originally been gold, but has oxidised and decayed so far, it's now almost black."
Burger believes the Kina Lillet recipe was altered to make it more stable, so that the contents wouldn't oxidise in the bottle. Whatever the reason, when it changed in 1986, the Vesper of Casino Royale ceased to exist. Until, that is, this evening.
"I saw a picture on Twitter, posted by a spirits antiques dealer in London of seven old bottles of Kina Lillet, with the caption, 'Look what we found,'" explains Burger. "Six of them looked like the bottle I just showed you, but I noticed that the seventh still had this lovely golden hue."
Luckily for Burger, the bottles were priced according to the quality of the label rather than the contents, and his golden Lillet's label was rather scruffy.
"It was the cheapest on offer, so I said, 'I'll take that one.'"
Burger pulls out this bottle to show me.
"I'm going to make you a Vesper with what I don't suppose is the only bottle from that era still in drinkable condition, but with the only one I've actually come across."
I can't actually believe Burger is about to open this. After all, he's spent years tracking down a bottle. Others probably exist in the cellars of private collectors, but this is a rare find indeed.
To have a bottle of original, unspoilt Kina Lillet in his hands, after all he's just told me, and to not stash it and join that illustrious company of posh cellar hoarders, but to open and serve it so generously is almost … well, it's the kind of thing Bond himself would do. 007 is, after all, a connoisseur of the finer things in life. I doubt he'd have paused to even explain the significance of the bottle.
Before Burger opens his Kina Lillet, however, he hesitates.
"There are a couple of things," he says. "A Vesper arguably isn't a martini. That's because a martini must be made with vermouth. Vermouth is made with bitter wormwood, whereas Kina is made with quinine."
It seems like a fairly minor point to stall for, but he continues.
"Also, it's quite distressing to add this, but I should say it before we drink: It might not actually be very good."
As it turns out, Fleming wasn't a fan of his own creation. In 1958, a writer for the then Manchester Guardian criticised the way Fleming name-dropped brands in his stories.
The author penned a response: … to create an illusion of depth, I had to fit Bond out with some theatrical props and, while I kept his wardrobe as discreet as his personality, I did equip him with a distinctive gun and, though they are a security hazard, distinctive cigarettes. This latter touch unfortunately went to my head. I proceeded to invent a cocktail for Bond (which I sampled several months later and found unpalatable) …
Ah. We have been fairly warned. Considering the measure of Kina Lillet is only small in comparison to the other spirits in the drink, it's a lot of effort to have gone to to honour the original.
"The original Vesper was of course made with Gordon's gin, but the strength is slightly different so we've decided to make it with Portobello Road Gin which is closer to the original strength," Burger continues. "Also the recipe calls specifically for Russian vodka which in 1953 almost certainly meant Smirnoff. But the Smirnoff we get in England today is mostly not made in Russia either—most of it's made in Scotland. So I'm using Beluga vodka, a very fine quality vodka still distilled and bottled in Russia. Bond specifies that the drink must be shaken not stirred, which is how I'll make it, though any bartender worth his salt will explain to you that a straight up martini drink such as this would benefit more from a stir than a shake."
The spirits are measured. The ice and alcohol shaken. The drink poured into a glass—cloudy at first with the air from being shaken and settling to a crystal clarity. A swipe of lemon peel, as prescribed, made round the rim, and the long forgotten drink is served.
I wait for the judgement of Burger, whose long quest is fulfilled with this serving.
"It tastes much sweeter," he says at first. He looks pleased. "Yep. The old way is definitely the best."
The drink of an iconic character that only features in print once, created by an author in a petulant moment—where does the fascination with the Vesper come from?
I find my answer with a sip from the glass itself. I was lucky enough to taste the original Vesper and can hand on heart say, the quest for Kina Lillet to remake the classic was well taken. Whatever he thought about his creation, I'm sure Fleming would approve.