“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?” By now, James Bond’s doozy of a drink order—a fabricated recipe dreamed up by Casino Royale author Ian Fleming—has become rote knowledge. It’s also become an exhausting point of contention in certain Martini-drinking circles—should it really be shaken or should it be stirred? What’s the closest approximation for the defunct Kina Lillet?
Less often discussed, however, is the actual merit of the recipe itself.
I always chalked that up to the obvious lack of merit that the recipe possessed. The combination of gin and vodka, for example, is nonsensical. The most common defense of the marriage portrays vodka as a softener of gin, a flavor dilutant, which feels unfair to vodka. In fact, no other classic recipe has ever sought to pair these two spirits together. In a field of thousands of cocktails—many of them bad—that’s quite telling.
Further, the Vesper, with its austere makeup, falls readily into Martini territory, a drink that—more than any other cocktail—is known for its legions of die-hard purists. A Martini is a gin cocktail, the purists claim. Sometimes a vodka cocktail. Never both. With the Martini cohort assuredly on my side, I felt bolstered in my assumption that the Vesper was a clever literary device and little more. In fact, Kingsley Amis, author of The James Bond Dossier, a critique of the novels, even went so far as to declare Fleming’s Vesper “the great Martini enormity.”
So when I posed the question—Is the Vesper actually a good drink?—to my friends and followers on Instagram last month, I sat back, smugly anticipating the inevitable snark that was about to flood my DMs. Surely, everybody would agree that the only people who actually drink Vespers are the same dweebs who point finger guns into the mirror of the tux rental shop while uttering: “The name’s Bond. James Bond.”
At first, I felt vindicated: “It’s not only bad, it’s nonsensical. Why would you have vodka and gin?! No one is ever like, ‘this cocktail would be better if it was just as boozy...but less fragrant and flavorful,’” wrote one friend. “The Vesper is the Kenneth Cole of cocktails. AKA the trim is genuine leather…” wrote another.
To further affirm my suspicions, I checked in with users of the r/cocktails subreddit to see where they landed on the issue. The most recent post on the topic, from 2018, consisted of a photo of a Vesper made by a user who goes by the name _Tywin_Lannister. He recited the recipe, followed by his impression of the drink: “Honestly this doesn’t taste that good. It’s really unbalanced and makes no sense for it to be shaken not stirred. ... I believe Bond ordered this to throw off Le Chiffre.” Another user shared in his sentiment: “I don’t know why people go through all sorts of somersaults to explain the genius they assume must be in this drink, when it seems more likely to me that Bond/Fleming just didn’t know that much about what makes a good cocktail.” My thoughts exactly.
“The Vesper is the Kenneth Cole of cocktails. AKA the trim is genuine leather.”
But as more responses rolled in on my Instagram poll, the tune changed, and the percentage of people clicking “yes, the Vesper is a good drink” began overtaking the number of those clicking “no, it is not,” 63 percent to 37 percent. “Perhaps the only way, aside from an Espresso Martini, that my body will accept vodka,” added one friend in a backhanded compliment to the Vesper. At a certain point, as the poll creeped momentarily closer to 50/50, one Vesper fanatic decried the haters: “Can’t believe how close the poll is…PURITANS!”
I felt unmoored, and mostly because I wasn’t sure what, exactly, the pro-Vespers saw in the drink. Many of those coming to its defense did so conditionally. It’s good “when made with real quina, not Lillet,” or “depends on the gin you use.” Do people love the Vesper or hate it? Or do they love to hate it? Or hate to love it?
To check my sanity, I dug into the literature of noted Martini authorities. “Ian Fleming and his creation, James Bond, caused the world to suffer many bad Martinis,” writes Robert Simonson in The Martini Cocktail. “But they also gave us the Vesper, a damn fine drink.” If one of our leading Martini experts considers it worth a damn, surely I was missing something, some key to understanding how the fictional cocktail had succeeded in not just crossing over into reality, but into the mainstream and, even further, into the good graces of countless drinkers and drink-makers.
Simonson offered some insight into the Vesper’s timeline of success. He noted that it wasn’t until the early 2000s that the drink found an audience. Why? In 2006, Casino Royale was remade starring Daniel Craig, who orders the Vesper—precisely as it was ordered by Fleming’s Bond in the book—throwing the drink into the spotlight and offering a shortcut to suave for anyone who ordered it. But, perhaps in a bigger boon to the drink’s reputation within nerdier factions of the cocktail world, Dale DeGroff included the drink in his 2003 book, The Craft of the Cocktail. There, he tilted the axis of the drink even more in favor of vodka, calling on gin in a supporting role. It’s a decision he reversed five years later in The Essential Cocktail; his original rendition might conceal the key to what, exactly, the vodka-gin combination actually has to offer.
“Vodka essentially acts as a heavy-duty elongator of more subtle flavors,” explains Jelani Johnson, an avid Vesper advocate, who prefers a vodka-forward preparation of the drink. He uses 2 ounces of vodka (Absolut, for its “creamy, full mouthfeel”) and a half-ounce each of gin and Cocchi Americano, plus a dash or two of orange bitters. Because the gin quotient is so small, he notes, no bottling is too cost-prohibitive to experiment with. The Vesper is, in Johnson’s words, “the vodka lover’s introduction to gin, as well as the gin lover’s opportunity to dive deeper into botanical profiles.”
It’s a convincing argument for a Vodka Vesper, but in the drink’s prescribed formulation the question still remains—why add vodka to a perfectly good Martini? Simonson suggests, “For a heavy-drinking guy like Fleming, it helped make the gin drink less gin-y—took off the edge—while keeping the alcoholic content high.” It’s a sentiment shared by Gary Regan in his 2003 The Joy of Mixology: “In this instance the vodka acts as a diluting agent,” he writes. Jon Mullen, a New York–based bartender, offers an even more practical reason: “pour costs,” he says, noting that vodka is less expensive than gin to use in a cocktail.
But could it be that the Vesper was never intended to make the leap from page to bar top? In a 1958 letter to the Manchester Guardian, Fleming offered a revealing confession: “I proceeded to invent a cocktail for Bond, which I sampled several months later and found unpalatable.”