As a literary device, the Vesper has a lot going for it. In its specificity—three measures of Gordon’s gin, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet, shaken and served with a long thin slice of lemon peel—James Bond’s fabricated Martini of choice conveys a certain confidence, while the unheard-of combination of vodka and gin projects an alluring devil-may-care attitude. In reality, however, “the drink doesn’t even make sense,” according to Dame bartender Sarah Morrissey.
At a recent blind tasting of the drink, the assembled panelists—Morrissey, Samantha Casuga (Temple Bar), Orlando Franklin McCray (Nightmoves) and Punch editor-in-chief Talia Baiocchi—found the drink to be inherently flawed. For one thing, as McCray observed, few bartenders actually know how the original was supposed to taste. The distinguishing ingredient, Kina Lillet, is a defunct product last produced in its original formulation in 1986. Even those fortunate enough to encounter a dusty bottle in the wild would have only a faint idea of its intended flavor. (Its wine base makes it particularly susceptible to changing in the bottle over time.) Every subsequent take on the recipe is only its maker’s best guess. But even the drink’s creator, author Ian Fleming—who sampled his recipe as it was intended—admitted in a 1958 letter to The Manchester Guardian that he found the drink to be “unpalatable.”
Nevertheless, in the midst of Martini mania, a growing number of bars are placing the Vesper on their menus, if only to placate the inevitable calls for what is perhaps the most famous Martini iteration. Judging by the sampling of submitted Vespers, bartenders have tried just about every tack to make the drink work, from yogurt-washing the base spirits to swapping in vermouth, bergamot liqueur or an alternative quina to substitute for the signature modifier. Some have flipped the recipe to be vodka-forward with a splash of gin, while others have created a true Reverse Vesper with the low-ABV ingredients acting as the base, joined by small measures of gin and vodka. The results were, on the whole, not good, with more than one eliciting tasting notes of “literal poison.”
But the last recipe of the day proved to be a winner. The house spec from Seattle’s Deep Dive builds on a base of Haku vodka with Roku gin and Mancino Sakura vermouth for a Vesper that does not stray too far from the classic blueprint while still managing to stand out as a particularly balanced iteration. As one taster declared: “I think this one’s kind of fun.”
Taking second place was the Vesper from Bemelmans Bar in New York. The spirit-forward concoction calls for a full two ounces each of vodka and gin and a mere half-ounce of Lillet, all of which is shaken—not stirred—in true James Bond fashion. Served ice cold in a V-shaped glass, it won high marks for leaning into the hard-hitting nature of the drink while still managing to feel rounder and softer than a traditional dry Martini.
Also on the podium was Eric Alperin’s Vesper from The Varnish in Los Angeles. His classic recipe calls for two ounces of Fords gin, a half-ounce of vodka and a half-ounce of Cocchi Americano. Morrissey noted that she would’ve expected to like that spec on paper, and it delivered in the glass, too. Casuga praised its “nice weight” and called it “the prettiest” of the bunch.
But even the prettiest of the bunch left the tasters wondering who would order a Vesper over, say, any other Martini. As Baiocchi noted of the general aura of the drink, “it just has bad alchemy.”