In pursuit of a classic cocktail

Cocktail enthusiast and long-time Bond fan, Dean Carlson goes on a quest to find the perfect Vesper Martini, and discovers a whole new world.

I have been a massive James Bond fan for as long as I can remember. As a child, I was fascinated by the fast cars, gadgets, guns, and explosions, which later in life expanded to include a healthy appreciation for corny one-liners, incredible CGI, special effects, breathtaking film locations, and of course, the irresistible Bond girls. The mounting excitement around the April 2021 release of the 25th movie in the James Bond series, No Time to Die, combined with a healthy dose of lockdown-induced nostalgia, reminded me of the incredible adventure that this lifelong fascination has taken me on.

A few years ago, I watched a rerun of a 2003 episode of MTV Cribs featuring GoldenEye in Jamaica, which at the time was occupied by Naomi Campbell. Whatever GoldenEye lacked in terms of the luxury and opulence we have come to associate with MTV Cribs, it made up for in authenticity and the historical significance of being the birthplace of James Bond.

I realised that although I have had my fair share of dry martinis and jokingly used the phrase ‘shaken, not stirred’, usually after having had a few, I realised I had never done justice to those immortal words by ordering an actual ‘Vesper Martini’.

While Ms Campbell was taking viewers on a tour of her Crib, it dawned on me that this was the house where Ian Fleming wrote every original James Bond novel ever written. I realised that I had never read any of Ian Fleming’s books despite my fascination with the 007 movies and love for reading. A few days later, I picked up a copy of the first book in the James Bond series, Casino Royale, not expecting the thrilling journey that I was about to embark.

Image courtesy of Ster Kinekor

When I reached the part where Bond ‘looked carefully at the barman. “A dry martini,” he said. “One. In a deep champagne goblet.” “Oui, monsieur.” “Just a moment. 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?”,’ I realised that although I have had my fair share of dry martinis and jokingly used the phrase ‘shaken, not stirred’, usually after having had a few, I realised I had never done justice to those immortal words by ordering an actual ‘Vesper Martini’.

Over the months that followed, I went from restaurant to restaurant and cocktail bar to cocktail bar, trying to find someone who could shake up a Vesper Martini, only to realise that the key ingredient, Kina Lillet, was not readily available in South Africa. Kina Lillet is a French apéritif, which in the early 1970s, was replaced by Lillet Blanc. As I started searching online, going from liquor store to liquor store and reaching out to importers, I was struck by a growing sensation that my determination to taste this elusive drink had turned into my very own mission, albeit not so secret.

A few months later, while on business in London, I had some time to kill and decided to visit Bond In Motion at the London Film Museum in Covent Garden, to lose myself in their incredible collection of original vehicles and props featured in the 007 film series. Seeing the actual Aston Martin DBS from Casino Royale reminded me of how the damage to this incredible vehicle was caused when James Bond swerved to avoid impact with Vesper Lynd, who found herself tied up in the middle of the road. Walking back to my hotel, in a highly primed state, I noticed the words Whisky & Fine Spirits above the Whisky Exchange’s display window.

Bond in Motion (Image supplied)

As I entered, I started scanning the room before asking the smartly dressed store attendant for a bottle of Lillet. The young man responded with the words, ‘Are you making a Vesper Martini?’ followed by a knowing smile.

Thanks to my heightened sense of awareness, brought about by the adrenaline rushing through my veins, I was able to keep my cool and respond with a casual nod. The young gentleman started moving the rolling ladder down the wood-clad shelves and climbed to the top, where he grabbed the shimmering bottle around the neck, made his way down the ladder, and ceremoniously presented it to me with the words ‘Here you go, Mr Bond.’

Arriving back in South Africa, I was confronted with the hard reality that I would not be able to complete this mission without a visit to Q. After wrapping up my last meeting of the day, I fought my way through rush-hour traffic and arrived at Adams Discount Centre in Fourways, literally seconds before they were about to close. At Adams, Q proudly presented me with a state-of-the-art Cocktail Shaker, Strainer, Martini Glasses and of course, an ultra-high accuracy, Measuring Jigger. After I paid, Q carefully wrapped my newly acquired gadgets. As he handed them to me, he attempted to remind me of the dangers of not treating these devices with the utmost respect. I interrupted his warning with the words, ‘Excellent, just the thing for unwinding after a rough day at the office,’ gave him a casual smile and was on my way.

I was getting close. After months of chasing this elusive drink, I had to remind myself that the Martini is a pre-dinner drink and had to fight the urge of going in for the kill too early. I proceeded to carefully lay out my Shaker, Strainer, Jigger, Gordon’s Gin, Smirnoff Vodka, a carefully selected lemon, and of course, the bottle of Lillet before double-checking the freezer to ensure that I had enough ice. I was patient.

I noticed Vesper coming down the stairs, walking elegantly across the living room. I ‘remember her beauty exactly.’ I ‘was not surprised to be thrilled by it again.’ She leaned over, gently kissing me on the cheek, and whispered, ‘dinner is almost ready’.

How was it possible that after everything I had gone through to experience a Vesper Martini, it could taste this bad?

My mouth felt suddenly dry, as I moved carefully into the kitchen. Grabbing hold of the Shaker, I gently, but deliberately started pouring:

88ml of Gordon’s Gin (43% ABV)
30ml of Smirnoff Vodka (43% ABV)
15ml of Lillet Blanc (17% ABV)

…into the Cocktail Shaker, before shaking it very well until it was ice-cold, then pouring it through the Strainer into my new Martini Glass, before adding a large thin slice of Lemon Peel.

I ‘reached for it and took a long sip’ and found myself completely overwhelmed by the harsh, strong, bitter taste. After months of fantasising about it, I had just lost my mixology-virginity and was disturbed by an overwhelming feeling that I had done it wrong. How was it possible that after everything I had gone through to experience a Vesper Martini, it could taste this bad? How could anything taste this bad?

In an attempt to figure out what had gone wrong, I realised that the Vesper Martini was never intended to taste good: ‘When I’m… er… concentrating,’ he explained, ‘I never have more than one drink before dinner. But I do like that one to be large and very strong and very cold, and very well made. I hate small portions of anything, particularly when they taste bad.’

However, in the movie, when Vesper asks Bond if he named the drink after her ‘because of the bitter aftertaste’, he replied, ‘No, because once you have tasted it, it’s all you’d want to drink.’

My search for answers kept on leading me to the same person, Alessandro Palazzi, who is the head bartender at Dukes in London’s exclusive St James district. Dukes was established in 1908 and was not only Ian Fleming’s former watering hole, but legend has it that this is where he coined the immortal phrase ‘Shaken, not stirred’. I was well aware of Alessandro’s reputation for serving some of the best martinis in this world. However, the same thing that drove me to find a bottle of Lillet, instead of using an easily accessible alternative, cut me off from any interest in trying his interpretation of the Vesper.

When the stronger-than-expected concoction hit my taste buds, I found myself consumed by pure pleasure, and amazement, followed by a distinct feeling that I had just betrayed Ian Fleming or broken some unwritten purist code.

The purist in me couldn’t understand why Palazzi, aka the ‘Duke of Dukes’, would use Polish vodka instead of Russian. Although martinis traditionally contain gin and vermouth, Ian Fleming added Russian vodka because Vesper Lynd was a double agent who worked for the United Kingdom’s Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), known as MI6, while working for the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD).

Alessandro Palazzi (Image courtesy of Mr Palazzi)

After everything I had gone through to get a bottle of Lillet Blanc, Palazzi uses Sacred Amber vermouth instead. He doesn’t use Gordon’s Gin even though it was specified in both the book and the movie and is easily accessible. Not to mention the fact that he recommends adding bitters and orange peel instead of lemon peel. To make things worse, not only does Palazzi not shake his Vesper, but he doesn’t even stir it.

Alessandro Palazzi’s Vesper Martini (Image courtesy of Mr Palazzi)

Eventually, I gave in to the temptation and tried my hand at mixing Alessandro’s interpretations of the Vesper Martini. As my lips touched the frozen glass, I was struck by the aroma of the orange peel. When the stronger-than-expected concoction hit my taste buds, I found myself consumed by pure pleasure, and amazement, followed by a distinct feeling that I had just betrayed Ian Fleming or broken some unwritten purist code. How could something so wrong taste so good? I was overcome by a bad case of cognitive dissonance, and Palazzi was the only person who could help me scratch this itch, so I decided to track him down.

Alessandro Palazzi is world-renowned and a credit to Dukes London and the hospitality industry. The man is a creative genius. Palazzi’s mixology skills have led Dukes’ martinis to be named the best in London, putting Dukes Bar on the map locally and internationally. He is a gentleman and welcoming host who takes exquisite care of his guests personally on all occasions and is very much loved by his regulars, some of whom include high-profile celebrities.

Because James Bond was a maverick, he had a disregard for convention and preferred to do things his own way.

I started off our conversation by sheepishly admitting my initial resistance to his interpretation of the Vesper and how it just took one sip to win me over.

Palazzi, an avid fan of James Bond books, explained that his interpretation of the Vesper Martini is intended as a celebration of Ian Fleming. I immediately felt we were kindred spirits.

He says that in 1953 when Ian Fleming invented the Vesper, it was unthinkable to mix gin and vodka, but because James Bond was a maverick, he had a disregard for convention and preferred to do things his own way. After reading Ian Fleming’s biography, Palazzi realised that it is technically impossible to recreate the Vesper Martini because although it is still possible to find the original Kina Lillet, if you are happy to pay around R20,000 per bottle, and you can still find a bottle of 1953 Gordon’s Gin, the brand of vodka was never specified.

According to Fleming’s biography, in 1933, the Russians claimed that British engineers had blown up a gas pipe to cause chaos, and he was sent to Moscow as a journalist to report back on the court proceedings on behalf of Reuters. During Fleming’s time there, he went to an American bar, supervised by a strong Russian lady. They had a bottle of Kina Lillet, an English gin (possibly Gordon’s), and a bottle of vodka at this bar. These were times of famine in Russia, and even bread was a luxury, and although refined vodka was available, it was reserved for the noble. Ordinary people drank home-made vodka made from weed, so until somebody decides to study and reproduce 1930’s Russian moonshine, we will have to settle for commercially accessible alternatives.

Palazzi emphasised that the Vesper Martini, like all cocktails, should be savoured and not consumed quickly, so it is essential to use the best quality ingredients, not only because of the smoother taste, but premium alcohol generally contains fewer chemicals.

On that basis, Palazzi recommends using Sacred Amber vermouth, which was developed by himself in collaboration with London-based Sacred. Fleming was after all British. Sacred Amber vermouth is now recognised as the closest equivalent to Kina Lillet and was awarded World’s Best Vermouth at the 2019 World Drinks Awards.

In 1953, when Ian Fleming invented the Vesper Martini, Gordon’s Gin’s alcohol volume was 50% ABV, which was subsequently reduced to 37.5% ABV in the United Kingdom. Because of the importance of using a dry gin with high alcohol content, Palazzi recommends using Berry Bros and Rudd No 3 London Dry Gin, which has been awarded World’s Best Gin four times. Although it is possible to find Berry Bros and Rudd No 3 locally, the alcohol content of Gordon’s Gin is 43% ABV in South Africa, which is quite close to the 1953 edition that Fleming used.

Although Bond didn’t specify the brand of vodka, we know from Casino Royale that he preferred vodka made with grain: ‘Excellent,’ he said to the barman, ‘but if you can get a vodka made with grain instead of potatoes, you will find it still better.’ Because Palazzi shares the commonly held belief that Vesper Lynd was inspired by Christine Granville, a Polish spy instead of a Russian spy, he recommends using Potocki, a high-proof Polish vodka created from rye grain.

He highlights that the Vesper Martini should be ‘very strong, and very cold’, and recommends keeping your Martini Glasses, Gin, and Vodka in the freezer. Not only do the cold ingredients provide a more subtle and refreshing drinking experience, but the higher viscosity allows for the oil from the orange peel to float on top.

When we drink, smell is the first sense that is engaged, so you get this beautiful orange smell, which also brings back memories, and although it smells good, the oil has a bitter taste, which jolts the senses. While your Vesper is still frozen, you don’t taste the alcohol; however, as the temperature increases, the reduced viscosity allows for the smell of the alcohol to be released, which changes the taste of your drink.

Although legend has it that Ian Fleming invented the phrase ‘Shaken, not stirred’ at Dukes London, Palazzi prefers his martinis poured, not shaken. This is a longstanding tradition at Dukes, partly because their martinis are served from a trolley. Shaking also releases the smell of the alcohol, so between pouring, low temperature from the frozen glass, keeping the alcohol in a freezer, and oil from the orange peel, you are eased into what is a very strong drink.

Palazzi was kind enough to share the recipe for his interpretation of the Vesper Martini, Dukes style.

Ingredients

* Belvedere Vodka is also Polish, readily available in South Africa and the official vodka of the James Bond film, Spectre.

Method

  • Store Martini Glass, Vodka & Gin and in the freezer
  • Remove Martini Glass from freezer
  • Add Bitters and gently swirl around the glass
  • Add Vermouth
  • Add Vodka
  • Add Gin
  • Garnish with a twist off organic orange peel
  • Serve immediately

Thanks to the flexibility that I learned from Palazzi, and the assistance of George Hunter, one of South Africa’s most celebrated bartenders, in finding a local alternative to Lillet, I decided to come up with my own Vesper Martini, using easily accessible South African ingredients.

(Image by Dean Carlson)

Ingredients

* Try Ginifer Orange Vanilla Bitters (48% ABV)* if bitter is not your thing.

Ginifer Bitters (Image by Dean Carlson)

Method

  • Store Martini Glass, Vodka & Gin and in the freezer
  • Remove Martini Glass from freezer
  • Add Bitters and gently swirl around the glass
  • Add Vermouth
  • Add Vodka
  • Add Gin
  • Garnish with a twist off Organic Orange or Lemon peel
  • Serve immediately

Although I agree with Ian Fleming that ‘I’d rather die of drink than of thirst’, it’s worth mentioning that despite the £22 (R440) price tag, there is a reason that Alessandro and his team at Dukes limit their guests to two Vesper Martinis per visit. This stuff is not for the fainthearted.

There is no doubt that the pursuit of this elusive cocktail ingredient has brought about a richness of experiences, friendships, and a newfound appreciation for the importance of curiosity and persistence. However, the most valuable discovery has been the sobering realisation that, although it was the purist in me that drove me to find a bottle of Lillet, it also cut me off from the possibility of trying Alessandro’s interpretation of the Vesper. Could it be that the desire for things to be totally correct or unchanged might be depriving me of beautiful tastes and experiences in other areas of life? ‘Yes, this is my second life.’ – James Bond

The upcoming Bond movie,  No Time To Die,  has been partly shot in Jamaica. The film opens with Bond sipping Blackwell Rum while enjoying retirement on the island. More about this next time… DM/ ML

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