Martinis Only? Not James Bond

Oct. 29, 2005

It isn't long into "Dr. No" -- the first of the James Bond books made into a movie -- that Sean Connery is brought "One medium dry vodka martini, mixed like you said, sir, and not stirred." That formula would soon become an iconic part of the Bond mystique -- and later a tired punchline. But the secret agent found in Ian Fleming's books isn't quite the slave of habit the producers (with their lucrative product-placement deals) made him out to be. A new actor, Daniel Craig, has been named to play Bond, and if the producers want him to succeed, they could look to the books to rejuvenate the franchise, and that includes freshening Bond's glass.


Bond's first drink on record occurs some 30 pages into Fleming's debut novel, "Casino Royale." He strolls into a bar at a French resort hotel and orders ... an Americano.


A what? An Americano is made of Campari, sweet vermouth, and soda water over ice in a highball glass. One of my favorite cocktails, with its perfect balance of bitter and sweet, the Americano is admittedly an acquired taste. Yet it was so popular among Americans visiting Italy at the turn of the last century that it was named after them. Nowadays it is obscure enough to be a fair test of your favorite bartender's skills.


Bond's taste for Americanos is explained in the short story "From a View to a Kill," which starts with Bond licensed to kill time in Paris. "One cannot drink seriously in French cafes," Fleming writes. "Out of doors on a pavement in the sun is no place for vodka or whisky or gin." Instead, one makes the best of the "musical comedy drinks" appropriate to the venue, in which case "Bond always had the same thing -- an Americano."


Fleming knew that in drink no less than food, it pays to play to an establishment's strength. When Bond grabs a roadhouse lunch with Felix Leiter in "Diamonds Are Forever," he doesn't waste time elucidating the comparative virtues of shaking vs. stirring; he just orders a beer (a Miller High Life, at that).


When in Jamaica, 007 favors gin-and-tonics extra heavy on juice from the island's fresh limes. When Bond trails Auric Goldfinger to Geneva, he relaxes with a tot of Enzian, "the firewater distilled from gentian," the root of an Alpine wildflower. In the Athens airport he knocks back Ouzo; in Turkey it's Raki. At Saratoga racetrack, he drinks Old-Fashioneds and "Bourbon and branch" (i.e., water). And when Bond goes out to lunch in London, he orders one of the most distinctively British of drinks, a Black Velvet. Equal parts champagne and Guinness stout, a Black Velvet might sound awful, but proves to be startlingly good in the drinking -- I find it tastes curiously and deliciously like hard cider.


But 007 doesn't always bow to local custom. In "Casino Royale" Bond for the first and only time invents a drink, a "special martini." He specifies to the barman, "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?" Later, he names it a "Vesper," for his doomed love-interest, fellow British agent Vesper Lynd. When he learns she'd been working for the Russkies, the cocktail is as dead to him as the girl.


The Vesper is not without controversy. The great postwar British novelist Kingsley Amis declared the Vesper to be one of Ian Fleming's only missteps in the drinking department. Amis was a connoisseur both of drinks and of the Bond books, authoring two books on drinking and a small, semi-scholarly musing on 007 called "The James Bond Dossier." Amis was also the first (and best) ghostwriter to pen a Bond novel after Fleming kicked. So we must take him seriously.


"Kina Lillet is, or was, the name of a wine aperitif flavored, I'm assured, with quinine and not at all nice," Amis writes in his "Bond Dossier." "I've never drunk it myself and don't intend to, especially as part of a Martini." Amis assumes Fleming was thinking of Lillet's vermouth, as opposed to the company's signature aperitif.


It's a shame Amis never gave Lillet a chance. Lillet Blanc, as the white-wine version of the aperitif is now known, is delightful on its own (if a bit sweet), and absolutely spot-on in the Vesper. With vermouth instead of Lillet, the drink is just a hybrid gin-vodka Martini, hardly warranting Bond's confidence that "my cocktail will now be drunk all over the world." But with Lillet, the Vesper does have a unique and appealing taste. And it's worth noting that Bond was hardly the first to use Lillet in a cocktail with gin. A classic 1920s drink called the Corpse Reviver #2 combined equal parts gin, Lillet, Cointreau and lemon juice, finished with a couple of drops of Ricard.


Even with all these worldly drink choices to try, no doubt many Bond stalwarts will still want to stick with the talismanic Vodka Martini. Ask for a Vodka Martini these days, and chances are the drink will have little or no vermouth, which just won't do. Bond liked to be able to taste the vermouth, and had his preferred ratio of vodka to vermouth at the ready: "I hope I've made it right," says Solitaire in "Live and Let Die," mixing Vodka Martinis for herself and a battered Bond. "Six to one sounds terribly strong." Well, it sounds right to me, if you don't forget the lemon peel.