The Vesper

20140208_175743_resizedProposed by: Jonathan

Reviewed by: David

There are a few themes to our cocktail choices. Not surprisingly for novices, we have tried a number of classics like last week’s Manhattan. The most common cocktail glass choice has been some variation on the coupe. Odd liqueurs, fortified wines and herbals have all become more commonplace in our combined bars. Cocktails are best matched to the correct setting and situation. Finally, there has been a literary lean in the choices that has included a nod to Hemingway that lead to the author of a book on his drinks visiting and commenting on this site.

This week’s cocktail, the Vesper, combines many of those themes. The drink’s origin, at least the undisputed part, is Ian Fleming’s first James Bond book Casino Royale. It is a variation on the classic martini served in a coupe. The ingredients are gin, vodka and a fortified wine, Kina Lillet, so obscure that it is no longer made although there are recommendations for a substitute.

The recipe that I used is very close to one recommended by Ted Haigh as translated from 007’s precise instructions to a bartender:

3 parts gin (Gordon’s for Bond but Boodles in this case based on Haigh’s recommendation)
1 part vodka (Tito’s since it is grain based which I will explain below)
½ part Lillet Rose’ (Blanc is one substitute, Cocchi Americano another)
Twist of lemon as garnish

Combine liquids, shake with ice (to make sure it is very cold and perhaps slightly diluted by the melt), strain and garnish with the twisted lemon rind.

James Bond dictated the recipe to the bartender in a casino bar. He then tasted it and was so satisfied he decided it would later need a proper naming. His only quibble, consistent with the discernment associated with the character, was that a grain-based vodka would be an improvement over the potato based one the bartender used. That was splitting hairs by Bond’s own assessment, although he used a French expression (“mais n’enculons pas des mouches”) that is much more colorful than splitting hairs. I’ll leave the translation to everyone’s Google skills.

This is a drink that needs a scene like that painted by the author Fleming. He placed it in the casino bar as Bond meets his CIA counterpart, Felix Leiter, for the first time. I felt like it was most appropriate for the waning daylight hours of a warm day. Perfect for sipping while the light slipped away and the cool of the night wandered in.

photo 2-16Here’s David’s Review:

I’m no martini man, classic or otherwise. I’ve had a few—surprisingly many for a person who has never acquired a taste for them—but perhaps I’m simply not dry enough or droll enough or sophisticated enough or just too coarse. I would be the worst Bond ever, worse than Timothy Dalton and much worse than George Lazenby. Gin is wonderful, vodka is—to my taste-buds—flavorless whether it’s grain, potato, or kitchen refuse, and Lillet (I used Blanc) seems quite pleasant. Lemon is good too.

Still, bringing the coupe to my lips and greeted by that familiar solvent smell, I had to hope their sum would be greater than the parts. My experience with martini-type drinks leads me to expect the initial burn of ethanol and the secondary warmth of nearly instant inebriation.

Okay, that’s not so bad, but it’s also not the sort of encounter I seek. Is it wrong to want a more disguised purpose?

The Vesper needed slow and steady sipping and very careful savoring. I tried to detect the separate components and monitor their influences on one another. I invoked all my senses as everyone tells me to and awaited the lift that invariably arrives after the first few swallows.

Still, here’s my verdict: I’m sorry.

Before you sigh and huff, Martini lovers, I want you to know it’s me. One of the only Latin phrases I know by heart is “De gustibus non est disputandum,” or “There’s no disputing matters of taste.” I’m not giving up on martinis—quite the contrary, I mean to figure out at last what others see in them—but I can’t pretend. I’d rather have bourbon on the rocks.

But, hey, a silver lining: I’ve made friends with the spirits expert at my local Plum Market, and she persuaded me to try a different (read: more expensive) type of vodka, Karlsson’s Gold, which is refined exactly once. Most distillers create vodkas refined over and over to the point of clear and clean consistency, but this one actually has a sort of flavor softer than you’d expect, if you can understand that. Granted, it’s potato and not grain (as Bond prefers) and didn’t redeem this drink for me, but it was a good discovery, something I can look forward to using again.

Jonathan’s take: Completely mixed reviews in my household on this one. It is definitely for martini lovers and demands the right setting.

David’s take: It’s me. It’s me. Martinis are just not my thing.

Next Week (proposed by David):

I’ve been feeling guilty about making my brother wander the planet in search of Aquavit and have been thinking about ways to make his search worthwhile. I’ve decided on a cocktail called A Sling of Sorts #2, which seems to me suitably arcane, involving simple syrup, port, and seltzer. As we turn toward spring (a Chicagoan can hope, can’t he?), the light character of this drink might be welcome….