April 13, 2023 marks 70 years since Ian Fleming’s novel “Casino Royale” first introduced the world to the Vesper Martini. In the book, Fleming’s famed spy James Bond orders a drink that only the author had ever shaken up prior to 1953, back when 007 was an unknown character in a draft manuscript.
Bond’s instructions for the barback are precise: “A dry Martini. One. In a deep Champagne goblet. 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.”
Quite a mouthful for a smooth-talking spy. However, over the years, screenwriters have reduced the line to something pithier. In the Bond film “Goldfinger,” when Sean Connery is asked, “Can I do something for you, Mr. Bond?” he simply replies, “Just a drink. A Martini, shaken not stirred.”
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Fleming’s own Midas touch had made gold out of both his spy and his Vesper Martini, which has since become a favorite at cocktail bars the world over. And like the myriad actors playing Bond, the drink has returned wearing new faces.
Below ground, at rink level in Rockefeller Center, bartenders at Jupiter — a food and drink program featuring all things Italian — are offering a Sardinian riff on Fleming’s original and very British Vesper.
Here, gin and bianco vermouth are mixed with a vodka that’s infused with lightly roasted fig leaves. The latter, bar director Rob Giles says, “imparts this intense, vegetal, young coconut flavor” into the spirit, while Mirto, a local Sardinian liqueur made from fresh myrtle berries, delivers herbaceous, oregano-like flavors into the drink. The Mirto is sweetened with honey, which in the end helps to replace what was lost when the bittersweet Kina Lillet was discontinued in 1986, making Fleming’s version of the Vesper something that can only ever be approximated. Gordon’s gin also has a gentler proof than what had existed when Fleming punched those keys in ‘53.
Naro, an inventive Korean restaurant on the other side of the rink at the Rock, delivers something unexpected in its Vesper variation. Naro’s version, the Dongji Martini, excludes both gin and vodka completely. Instead, the bar combines two sojus to create something that Bond would have likely ordered if spying in Seoul.
Naro’s drink combines Damsoul Pine, a spruce-tea inflected soju that is herbaceous like a gin, and Sulseam Mir, a rice-based soju that’s clean and crisp like a vodka. Instead of Bond’s large, thin lemon peel, Naro drops a cube of dongchimi (pickled winter radish) into the drink, spills in brine for savory notes, and adds Cocchi Americano for bittersweet balance.
Jhonel Faelner, beverage director at Naro, disagrees with Bond and prefers the drink stirred, not shaken. “Or better yet, the way Duke’s Bar in London does it,” he says, “gently mixing spirits kept in a freezer served in a frosted glass. It’s hard to beat that texture and flavor.”
Another barman who thinks that Cocchi Americano is an apt replacement for the lost Kina Lillet is Justin Lavenue of The Roosevelt Room in Austin, Texas. Besides mixing French spirits Routin Blanc and Citadelle gin with a wheat vodka from New Zealand, and hooking a traditional lemon peel on the rim, Lavenue uses a Himalayan salt tincture to enhance the drink’s other flavors. But Lavenue throws his international Vesper, bringing The Roosevelt Room’s variation near to the temperature of a stirred Martini, while aerating it a touch more than a Martini just stirred.
“I think it’s one of the more delicious and more interesting Martini drinks,” Lavenue says of the Vesper, a drink that suddenly became popular all over again in 2006 when the second “Casino Royale” film first premiered.
In the adaptation, Daniel Craig as Bond goes to dinner with Vesper Lynd, a fellow agent and lover. Upon sipping his Martini, Bond says, “I think I’ll call that a Vesper.”
The character of the same name replies, “Because of the bitter aftertaste?”
To which Bond says, “No. Because once you’ve tasted it, that’s all you want to drink.”
He may have been onto something. “It was one of the drinks that got our bar staff hooked on cocktails,” says Lavenue.