On this episode of “Cocktail College,” host Tim McKirdy breaks down a classic Martini riff, the Vesper. He chats with Patrick Smith, manager of bar openings for Union Square Hospitality Group, to uncover everything there is to know about the past, present, and future of the drink.
Unlike many classic cocktails, the Vesper has clear origins: James Bond author Ian Fleming’s “Casino Royale.” What are the specs for this simple yet iconic drink? And how can it be updated for the modern palate? Tune in to learn more.
Patrick Smith’s Vesper Recipe
- 2 ounces gin, such as Beefeater
- 1 ounce vodka, such as Belvedere
- 1/2 ounce of Tempus Fugit Kina L’Aéro d’Or
- Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass with ice.
- Stir until cold and strain into a chilled coupe glass.
- Garnish with an expressed, manicured lemon twist.
CHECK OUT THE CONVERSATION HERE
Tim McKirdy: Hey, this is Tim McKirdy, and welcome to VinePair’s “Cocktail College.” “I never have more than one drink before dinner, but I do like that one to be large, very strong, very cold and very well made.” Patrick Smith, welcome to the show.
Patrick Smith: Thanks for having me. A really big drink.
T: Definitely. And the drink in question there would be…?
P: It’s the Vesper Martini.
T: Of course it is. Very interesting that you say that, because that is a Bond quote. There’s going to be a lot of Bond chat on today’s episode. It’s impossible that there wouldn’t be.
P: No doubt.
T: But first of all, I did want to ask you, are we classifying this as a Martini? Or is the Vesper a standalone drink?
P: I would say it’s a subcategory. I think it belongs squarely in the Martini universe. It is a really specific Martini for sure, especially with the ingredients that it calls out, but also the preparation that it calls for. To my earlier point, it’s also just huge by today’s standards, especially the recipe that Bond does call out. It’s so much bigger than almost anything I’ve ever made in my whole career, so it’s really bad*ss. But in another way, I can see why you’d only want to have one of those.
T: Absolutely. I’m glad that you’ve clarified that there, because that’s something I was thinking about and it also ties into the first interactions that we ever had. I think they were discussing Martinis, but then they did eventually lead into the topic of Vespers. So I’m very excited to have you in the studio today chatting about this cocktail. We’ve established that it is a type, a subcategory of Martini. And as we alluded to at the top, this is a Bond drink more than any other, more than the Martini. Can you give us the reference here? Can you tell us what makes this notable and also the background there?
James Bond and the History Behind the Vesper
P: It’s a really interesting story, actually. Before there were Bond films, there were Bond novels by a man named Ian Fleming. I believe it was in his first novel, “Casino Royale,” that came out in 1953. There’s a really awesome passage in there where James Bond is at a French casino, and he calls over the barman and orders this dry Martini. And then he grabs the waiter or the bartender and clarifies further and says his recipe for what would ultimately become the Vesper. He says, “Three measures of Gordon’s, one measure of vodka, and half a measure of Kina Lillet.” I may be misquoting slightly, but he says “Shaken, very hard and very cold and with a large, thin slice of lemon peel.” That’s about as specific as a Martini order gets. At the time, he didn’t name the cocktail “Vesper.” He actually says something like, “I’m going to have to patent this when I come up with a name for it.” Later on, he meets the heroine of the book, Vesper Lynd, and winds up naming the cocktail after her.
T: I’m sure they’re out there, but no other references come straight to mind of a book and this cocktail being created there and then going on to become a classic. It goes on to become very well known. It’s worth noting, too, that this is the only occasion in any of the Bond books that he drinks this cocktail.
P: Yeah, and I haven’t read too many of these novels myself. But I have to say, even when it comes to the movies as well, he stops being so specific about the Vesper and starts ordering his famous Vodka Martini, shaken, not stirred, etc. But beyond that, from a cocktail recipe perspective, I think it’s really interesting because it’s a little bit anachronistic coming from the 1950s. If you think about what else is happening in the cocktail universe at that time, it’s really the birth of tiki. What other stirred cocktails come out of that era? I’m not sure there are any, because we’re not yet to the Godfather or Rusty Nail — the ’60s and ’70s bistro-cocktail territory. We’re way past pre-Prohibition, and this cocktail sounds a little bit more like a pre-Prohibition cocktail.
T: Yeah, that’s super interesting to note the time period there that this is happening. Just as we mentioned, the fact that this is an author essentially.
P: He never worked behind a bar that I’m aware of. Apparently, he was in the British military in World War II, and perhaps he learned how to make drinks while stationed abroad. But whatever the case, he came up with a recipe that has stood the test of time.
T: It’s interesting, too, because then it goes through this whole period of rediscovery outside of nerdy bar folk circles when the movie comes out. I will be honest, I know passages from “Casino Royale,” the book. I have not read the book myself, but I don’t believe the same thing happens in the movie, where suddenly everyone around the table is going, “Oh, I’ll have one of those, too.”
P: I actually just watched the clip today, and he does pretty much the exact recipe as it’s called in the book, which I think is kind of cool.
T: We could have saved this for later, but I’m going to throw it in there now because you’ve mentioned it; the shaken, not stirred. That has become slightly controversial over the years. But I just happened to be reading through the “Savoy Cocktail Book” last night, which was published in the 1930s. The Martini recipe in there is shaken, not stirred.
P: Oh, interesting, I didn’t know that.
T: I literally came across that last night and I was thinking, well, maybe people look back and say that Ian Fleming got this wrong because he’s not a bartender. But maybe, actually, that was historically accurate at the time. We’re talking the 1950s.
P: Well, it certainly could have been. You also have to remember at this point in time, certainly in the ‘30s, but maybe not so much in the ‘50s, ice probably had quite a different quality at that time. Not to mention the spirits themselves. Not only have these recipes changed, but I’m sure the quality has gone up over the years for the spirits. But also of the ice, even to the extent that maybe today what it means to shake or stir a cocktail — using really nice ice that’s designed specifically for cocktails and is super cold and not melting yet — perhaps it was a little bit harder to come by that quality of ice at the time. This might be getting a little bit nerdy, but I will always adjust the way I make drinks to the quality of the ice that I have around me. If I have beautiful, perfect cold draft cubes, which is a specific cocktail bar-centric variety of ice cube, I’ll shake or stir in a certain way. But if I have home ice or what we call “hotel ice,” which is really slippery, wet, crappy ice, then I’ll stir and shake quite differently. Because the point isn’t the ice, it’s the cocktail that results from the ice. You got to tailor it that way. So perhaps in the ’30s, and I’m just riffing here, it’s possible that the quality of the ice necessitated different methods of preparing these things.
The Specs Used for the Vesper
T: We’re looking at this now as a drink, and maybe we’ll take a couple of steps back from Bond for a second. I’m sure we will return to him. But what else makes this a notable cocktail? Are there any other facets of it that really stand out to you as a bartender?
P: Yeah, definitely. From a pure recipe standpoint, it’s really interesting that it is a split base cocktail coming from this era. Specifically, it is a split of gin and vodka. I’m not sure that there is another classic cocktail that calls for a split of gin and vodka. And it’s really strange. I think you have to come at it from a couple of different angles as to why it even makes sense, because I think you can actually say this just doesn’t make sense. I think that’s a fair point. But if you want to make it make sense, there are a couple of ways to do it, in my opinion. One is from a bartender’s perspective. You’ll hear things like, “Well, the vodka lengthens the gin and kind of makes it a little bit less dense on the palate.”
T: So it dilutes the flavor without diluting the ABV.
P: Yeah, it’s almost as if you were to say, “I want to have a Gin Martini, but I don’t want to get smacked in the face with all that gin flavor, but I still want that alcohol ratio to be there.” So it’s a way to have a filler on the palate. That’s maybe a bartender-centric way to put it. I’m still not sure that I buy that personally. But nonetheless, from a Bond perspective, it’s really interesting. I had always heard that the inspiration as to why you wouldn’t mix gin and vodka in this cocktail actually pertained to the geopolitics of what Bond was dealing with at that time. You would use British gin and Soviet vodka, and it was kind of like a handshake that we’re going to have nice relations between these two countries in the time of war. I’m not sure where I heard that; it’s possible that I made it up. But the other one is that the character Vesper Lynd — spoiler — turns out to be a double agent and works for the Russians as a spy. We have the double-agent cocktail with British gin and Russian or Soviet vodka.
T: It definitely makes more sense that Fleming, a person who’s writing the first of a series of spy novels, might want to take this editorial approach more than, say, a bartender would at the time. We’re just throwing things out here now. Is it even possible that he came up with the quote that I said at the start of the episode first. He wants the drink to be “large, very strong, very cold and very well made.” Did he come up with a quote first and be like, “OK, how can I make a Martini more strong?” Did he hammer home that point by adding the vodka?
P: Yeah, maybe. Like I said earlier, it’s just a huge cocktail, I think, 4 and a half ounces. It’s cold when it comes out. For most Martinis these days, you’ll see in New York specs or recipes that range anywhere from between 2 and a half to 3 and a half. And this is really, really. So 4 and a half is almost so large that I’m having trouble imagining it fitting into a contemporary cocktail glass.
T: For this very reason, I have 6-ounce cocktail glasses at home. You spoke about the modern landscape here in New York and across the country. I wonder, what do you feel the sentiment is towards this drink, both from the bartending community and from guests?
P: I do think it’s gotten into popular culture a little bit, and I think that is largely due to the movie edition of “Casino Royale.” But consumers and bar guests do order this classic cocktail in New York’s cocktail bars. They, what we say, “cold call it.” They’ll just be at the bar with their server and say, “I’ll have a Vesper.” I was actually looking at one of the bar programs for a bar that we just opened in my restaurant group called Manhatta, which is down in the Financial District. When we looked at the spread of what cocktails had been ordered, Vesper wasn’t at the top of the list by any means. But we had sold a dozen Vespers and we’d been open for only three weeks or so.
T: Wow. And that’s not on the menu?
P: No, it’s not on the menu. That’s a dozen people who wanted a Vesper and probably none of them were bartenders. That’s just in the community from a bartender perspective. I will say as a career bartender, when I get an order for a Vesper, I kind of think two things to myself. I think like, “Oh, here’s someone who wants to elevate their experience a little bit and have something that’s a little bit more.” It’s a Martini, but with a twist — not to make a pun. It has a little bit more flair or a little bit more touch to it. Here’s somebody who styles themselves as an educated drinker and wants to have a nice experience. So that’s really cool. And on the other hand, I’m thinking to myself, “I got to go hunt down a bottle of gin and a bottle of vodka and a bottle of aromatized wine.” That’s going to tie me up at the service bar for a little bit. And it’s totally worth it. You should order Vespers if you would like to. But as a service bartender, sometimes it’s funny to go on a hunt for these bottles.
T: Have you ever had this cocktail on any of your menus as a permanent fixture? Just thinking to myself here about the bartending community’s feelings towards this drink, I don’t see Vespers that often on menus.
P: I think you’re right, and I haven’t seen them too much, either. I’ve never put one on a menu myself. I do think there’s room for it after having done a little bit of research on this cocktail. It’s cool. There’s a lot happening there and there’s a lot happening from a flavor perspective. There are a lot of ways that you can make it very crafty and very intentional, where I think it could deserve a place on a cocktail menu. Because really, when you think about classic cocktails that wind up on somebody’s cocktail menu, I’ve taken this recipe and I’ve really dissected it. I’ve really got to the molten core of it. I really want to make it perfect, either by honoring the recipe so totally that it’s the perfect platonic form of this cocktail. Or, I can update it and make it contemporary and give it new life and I really want you to experience it. Those are both really great reasons to put a classic cocktail on your menu if you’re a bartender, and the Vesper falls into one or both of those categories; I would say do it.
T: I’m speaking from personal amateur experience here. I am not a professional, I know that’s hard for you to believe. Quoting “The Office” there, “I am not a professional.” However, at home I ended up making some Vespers with some high-quality flavored vodkas. Vodkas infused with real fruit from the Pacific Northwest. And I was like, “That could be an interesting use for this because the vodka has a reason to be there beyond just booze.” I know we’re getting ahead of ourselves in terms of the show and stuff, but that’s something I’ve enjoyed doing.
P: What you say there kind of reminds me of something that you’ll hear a lot in the bourbon community or the very fancy whiskey community. Which is, “I’ve got this really fancy bottle. Should I only drink it neat or should I put it on a cube? Or would it be sacrilege to put it in an Old Fashioned or something?” To their credit, that community and their opinion is, nine times out of 10, you should do whatever you want with it. It’s your bourbon, it’s your Scotch. It’s your flavored vodka, and it’s your cocktail. What is the point of all of this anyway? We’re making cocktails. It’s supposed to be fun and it’s supposed to be creative, and you’re supposed to enjoy what you’re drinking. There’s no reason to adhere so closely to a pre-established recipe just for the sake of it.
T: I like what you mentioned before there. You are making this cocktail and you’re not going for a modern version and you’re going for the classic and you really want to dial into making that as good as possible. Before we go into how you do that, if someone’s making it for you, what are you expecting from this drink? What’s the profile? What are you looking for?
P: If I order a Vesper at a bar, I’m really looking for some fine details. First of all, I suppose I’m looking for a bartender who doesn’t look at me like I have six eyes when I order it. If they know what it is, that’s a good starting point. You know it’s bad when the bartender has to kind of duck down and look on their phone for a recipe, which happens not infrequently.
T: Can I stop you for a second there? Sorry to interrupt, but that has happened to me a few times. What’s the best practice there? Do I just say, “You know what? Forget about it.” No insult whatsoever, but give me something that you know and that you enjoy making.” Or do I be like, the standard these days is so good that I trust that they can look at the specs, and they can execute.
P: If you’re a bartender, let’s say you don’t know the recipe for a Vesper and someone orders it. If you’re a bartender who has decent technique and has the ingredients around you, you can look at the recipe and make a good Vesper. Because all it is, is adding things to your tin or your glass and executing your good technique on it. So even if you’ve only seen that recipe for the first time, there’s no reason why you can’t make it good. That being said, if you notice that your bartender seems to not know what’s going on, it’s not really necessarily their fault because they may be very new to the industry, and we all started somewhere. But I would try to gauge the situation and say, “Is this someone who has the time to really go through this process with me?” Do they have five minutes to spare and we can really talk about it? Not that I would coach them through it. But do they have the time to go on their phone and figure it out? Or are they super busy? Is it time to pivot to something a little bit more simple or classic, or even just a beer?
T: So just read the room.
P: It’s basically reading the room.
T: Sorry for that interruption.
P: No, not at all.
T: Moving on from there, first the bartender. Then what else?
P: I would say glassware is going to be important here. I really am going to want, to Bond’s point, this thing to be cold. And that starts with a really cold glass. Ideally, you’ve got a glass in a freezer, but not all bars have freezers, so a fridge will do. If you don’t even have enough space behind your bar to refrigerate glassware, you don’t have enough fridge space, put a couple of cubes in it and fill it with water to kind of get that glass cold. You start with the cold glass. The temperature differential between the glass and the cocktail when it’s finished won’t bring the temperature of the cocktail up right away even before I drink it. So if you start with a cold glass, you’re already giving yourself an advantage. Then I’m going to look for decent-quality gin and decent-quality vodka. There are a lot of different avenues you can take to this, and we’ll talk about that later. I don’t need to be picking up something out of a plastic handle.
P: Yeah, exactly. Yeah. Yeah, right?
T: You could do the Georgi double for this cocktail, by the way, but it probably wouldn’t be very good.
P: And then the aromatized wine, which I assume we’ll also be getting into later. But whatever you select, ideally it’s pretty fresh. First of all, it’s been refrigerated if it’s opened. In a perfect world, it is an unopened bottle. But that’s only going to happen once out of every 50 times. But ideally, it hasn’t been open for too long, and it’s been refrigerated. With the shaken-versus-stirred thing, I don’t really have too much of an opinion on it. I do think you should drink the cocktail that you want to drink. If I were making one, I’d probably stir it by default because I really like the texture of a stirred Martini. It’s very velvety and delicious in that way. But I know people really love the idea of shaken, not stirred, and they love feeling like James Bond. After all, that’s part of the point. I don’t want to turn down my nose at people who want to feel like James Bond, right? So I would stir it and then I would look for a beautiful lemon twist. But as I said, it’s basically all about the little tiny details with this one. There’s no big, bold syrup or mezcal or smoke finish or fire or anything like that. There’s nothing spicy. It’s a bunch of really simple, clean, austere ingredients that need to be mixed just so. And it’s really delicious.
The Ingredients Used in the Vesper
T: It certainly can be a delicious cocktail. Let’s dial into the ingredients for that now, because like you said, it’s simple and it’s clean. They come together so well. Usually when we’re talking about drinks like that, the ingredients take on heightened importance. So let’s start with gin first. What’s your approach here? You mentioned, of course, Gordon’s in Bond’s recipe. But what’s your modern-day approach to this?
P: It’s worth mentioning that Gordon’s does still exist. The recipe has changed since the ’50s. You could very well make a good Vesper with Gordon’s, but you might expand your horizons a little bit and try something else in the London Dry category as well. I would stick to London Dry, for at least the first time you make a Vesper. It’s this very old-school category of gin that generally does come from the U.K. and is pretty forward on the juniper. It’s not too complicated with the other botanicals. I would say a Tanqueray, a Beefeater, a Hayman’s London Dry; one of these really old-school labels that’s been around for a long time. I would start there.
T: Definitely keep it classic for this one. What about vodka? Because I think this does bring us back to that passage again. Even though people might think, “What’s it doing there?” as a discussion, vodka is one of the most interesting things to talk about here. Let’s talk about the book first and where we’re directed in that scenario.
P: It’s really interesting what happens in the book, because overall, the bartender does a really good job with putting together this very specific recipe that Bond asks for.
T: Off the cuff.
P: It’s such a specific order. It’s really strange. But to the bartender’s credit, he comes up with something that Bond enjoys. And he does offer one piece of feedback about it, which I just thought was so funny. He says something to the effect of, “Oh, it seems you used a potato-based vodka here. I’d recommend using something grain-based in the future. It would make it even better.” Wow, Bond really is a cocktail artist here.
T: Is he, or is he just being a bit of an asshole here in the room?
P: He’s definitely that. But let me rephrase that. He thinks of himself as a cocktail artist here, or he’s playing one on TV or something. That being said, to go from a potato-based vodka to a grain-based vodka, it’s probably Polish if you’re using a potato vodka. Most of these come from Poland, like Chopin or Wódka. To go grain-based, it would make sense from a flavor perspective, because the gin is going to be grain-based as well. Most London Drys are also grain-based. But for me, I’m going to try from a Bond perspective and also from a flavor perspective to keep it European. It’s really interesting because there are some vodka brands out there that you would look at the label and you think it’s European, but it isn’t. Or you’d think it comes from a certain country, and it doesn’t. Let’s just make it even more broad. You look at a bottle of Stoli. That’s not coming from Russia; it’s coming from Latvia. I believe that Smirnoff is made in the United States. I’m looking for something that is Eastern European. Beyond the political reasons not to use a Russian vodka at this time, you actually are going to have a tough time finding it anyway in the United States. I’m going to search for a different Eastern European vodka and probably go to Belvedere. It’s Polish and it’s rye-based, which is grain. So we’ve got a rye grain-based vodka from Eastern Europe. In fact, I believe that Poland was part of the Soviet Union. They probably wouldn’t like to refer to it as Soviet vodka. But in the ’50s, if Belvedere was made in the same place, it was made in the Soviet Union.
T: Yeah, accurate for that.
P: So we’ve got ourselves a grain-based vodka from Europe, and so I’d probably go to Belvedere.
T: That’s a great point. It’s just another kind of example highlighting Bond’s flexing in that scenario. I believe there’s a quote where he says a very vulgar French expression meaning, “Let’s not split hairs.” So Bond’s flexing his French and also his knowledge. I do believe later in the novel, he and Vesper are drinking vodka and having caviar. He explained that it’s something that he came across first spending time in Russia. So again, that would make sense here why he is going for the grain. But I do completely agree with you. Belvedere offers some incredible expressions, especially these terroir series that they’re doing now.
P: Oh, definitely. If you want to do a really luxurious one, they’ve got these marks that are in these frosted, almost black-looking bottles, that are named for all these things.
T: One is a forest and one’s a lake.
P: Yeah, there’s a forest and the lake, and they are these terroir-driven vodkas that are really delicious. You could imagine a world where, if you really want to style yourself out, you pick up a really nice bottle of terroir-driven Belvedere. You pick up a really nice bottle of Tanqueray 10 or a super-premium London Dry, and you have a fresh bottle of your aromatized wine, which we’ll get to, and you get the perfect glass. As a home bartender, you’re now making that platonic form of the Vesper. This is about as good as a Vesper can get.
T: As good as it gets. Let’s dive into that third ingredient now, because this is the one that does really beg the argument that we don’t really know now what Fleming’s drink would have tasted like, because ingredients change. Historically or correctly, what was this third part of the cocktail?
P: He calls for something called Kina Lillet. You may be familiar with something that sounds a little similar called Lillet Blanc. It’s essentially the same producer, you might say it’s like a grandchild of Kina Lillet. But this Kina category of aromatized wine contains quinine, and it contains that for anti-malaria reasons. Kina Lillet is a French product. At the time, a lot of French people were doing some, frankly, deplorable colonialist activities in North Africa and other areas where malaria was an issue. So the French government actually put out a competition to say, what’s a way that we can make quinine palatable? The winner of this competition was Lillet. So they made Kina Lillet as a way for these French soldiers to avoid malaria or treat malaria while still enjoying something that was palatable to them. All that is to say Kina Lillet is no longer in production. Essentially, Lillet Blanc completely negates or really ratchets back the quinine. It’s far less bitter than Kina Lillet would have been. But that said, there are a couple of alternatives out there that are probably closer to the flavor profile. One is Tempus Fugit, which is an American liqueur company. You might call it a modifier company. They make them.
P: It is billed as a replacement for Kina Lillet, specifically. That’s going to be a really good choice. There’s also Cocchi Americano, which is an Italian aromatized wine that also has quinine in it. I like to try to keep with things that came from the same country, if possible, with things like this. Tempus Fugit does come from the United States, but at least it is explicitly an attempt to recreate Kina Lillet. Whereas Cocchi Americano was a contemporary of Kina Lillet, so it was different at the time. I’d have to imagine it’s different now as well.
T: Can we perhaps hazard a guess of where they came up with this product for the vodka specifically? Or are there any other kinds of classics that call for Kina Lillet that are not coming to the top of my mind?
P: I think it’s called for in a 20th-century cocktail with cacao and lemon, which is such a funky cocktail. It’s not neither here nor there. But I do think that calls for Kina Lillet. But nonetheless, there’s one other product that I think is cool here, which is actually local to New York City. It’s from a producer called St. Agrestis in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. They just released Paradiso Aperitivo. It’s a quinine-infused, aromatized wine. The reason why I thought of it is because I was at Manhatta, this bar that we just opened in my restaurant group, and was watching service bar, and someone had ordered one of these dozen or so Vespers. The service bartender who was our head bartender that night, his name’s Cameron Winkelman, he picked up the bottle of St. Agrestis Paradiso Aperitivo, and he gave me this, like, wild-eyed look and was like, “I’m going to put this in this Vesper.” It was really funny, but then I thought about it and I was like, “That’s a pretty good idea.” There’s a good shot that it tastes less like the Kina Lillet than the Tempus Fugit, or maybe even the Cocchi Americano does. But I thought it was a really cool, out-of-left-field suggestion.
T: Amazing. To wrap this one section up briefly, beyond the inclusion of quinine, what are we looking for that’s more than a vermouth or taking us away from the profile of modern-day Lillet? Why did those not quite work historically?
P: You’d be tempted to say, why wouldn’t you use a dry vermouth? I think there are two reasons. One is that the sugar content of a Kina Lillet was probably a little more elevated. In other words, it was sweeter than a traditional dry vermouth. But then there’s also that bitterness element that comes from the quinine that, if you were next to Bond on that fictional day in the French casino and you had also enjoyed what would become the Vesper, you’d probably notice that it was a little more bitter than you would have thought. I think that’s a pretty important part of the flavor, so I would hate to lose it. Quinine is a difficult flavor to put into a cocktail, simply because it’s a little bit difficult to infuse. I wouldn’t recommend infusing quinine at home. It can actually get dangerous. But other than that, easily accessible ingredients that contain quinine would be tonic water. At the point where you’re putting a carbonated ingredient into your Vesper, you’ve done something completely different. Those are the main reasons why it’s worth your time to find something that goes beyond a traditional or contemporary vermouth for the sake of this cocktail. Lillet Blanc is a fine substitute, but it’s going to lack that bitterness.
How to Make a Vesper
T: Thanks for clearing that up. Now what about your preparation, specifically? Imagine I’m Bond, and I’ve just ordered this from you. Can you take me through the specs that you would use?
P: You’ve got the accent for it, I gotta say.
T: I’d like to think, although my name is Tim, I like to think I’m more of the Sean Connery type. So I’ve ordered a Vesper. We’re at Manhatta. How would you make it today?
P: Sure. Bond calls for three parts, one part, one-half part. In other words, that’s going to come out to 3 ounces, 1 ounce and half an ounce. Like I said, I think that’s too big. Mostly for glassware sake, but also for people’s palates. I don’t want to overserve somebody, so I’d be pretty cautious about making somebody a 4-and-a-half ounce cocktail. I’m just going to doctor it by bringing the gin down by 1 ounce. I’m going to go 2 ounces, 1 ounce, and a half an ounce of gin, vodka, and aromatized wine, respectively. With the gin, I’m probably going to go with Beefeater. It is about as classic as it gets. With vodka, I will pick up my bottle of Belvedere, if I’ve got it handy. And then I will probably pick up the Tempus Fugit Kina, although I’ll be tempted to pick up the St. Agrestis Paradiso. Maybe I’ll feel you out as a guest a little bit and see whether you’re into something a little bit out of left field. But if we’re going traditional, I’m going to go with the Tempest Fugit, for sure. I will probably shake this cocktail for you if it’s a cold order. From a flavor profile perspective, I would prefer it to be stirred. But in all likelihood, you ordered this cocktail because you want to feel like James Bond. And James Bond wanted this cocktail shaken, and he was very vocal about it. I’m going to try to be a good host over being a “good drinks maker,” because I think that’s actually more important. So I will shake this cocktail for you. And then I’m going to cut you a fresh, long, thin lemon peel as Bond specifically called for. I will do something called “manicuring it,” where I’ll cut the edges off with a paring knife and make it look very pretty. Because this is all about elegance, right? I’ll express it, and that is to say I’ll squeeze it over the surface of the cocktail to get those lemon oils onto the surface of the drink. Then I’ll flip it upside down and drop it into the glass and push it towards you.
T: Very nice. And for glassware, is it a coupe?
P: Yes, I’m going to use a coupe. It’s funny because Bond calls for a Champagne goblet specifically. That’s the glass that he says. It’s funny to think about what that means. I think it probably means a coupe or something that looks most closely to a coupe.
T: Right, the Marie Antoinette-inspired Champagne glass.
P: It’s not a V-shaped Martini glass. I actually had trouble finding images of V-shaped Martini glasses from the ’50s. At that time, it was still these rounded-edged coupe glasses. So it’s funny because you see Bond drinking out of V-shaped Martini glasses all throughout the ’60s up through today. In “Casino Royale,” Ian Fleming is imagining Bond receiving this cocktail in a coupe.
T: Which again, does cast some doubt on the original version of the drink because surely those coupes wouldn’t have been big enough?
P: Yeah, it’s true.
T: Maybe they’re doing a little Sidecar situation
P: That would be very advanced for the ’50s, but maybe. Maybe there were really big goblets. That being said, if you want to get super nerdy, he does say “parts.” He doesn’t say ounces. So maybe we’re scaling it back a little bit. And you also have to also remember we’re in France, so we’re not measuring in ounces, we’re probably measuring in milliliters. So by proportion, you could still have it fit in the glass if you were using a unit of measurement that wasn’t ounces.
T: This is good. We’re just picking away every single aspect of it. And you know what? I think we’ve come to the end with this final drink in front of me and we’re saying, “Actually, you know what? It holds up in every respect.”
P: Look, if you receive a well-prepared Vesper with all the intricate details that we talked about, I don’t think there’s any way that you’re going to watch this cocktail being lovingly prepared and expertly finished in front of you and then you sip it and you and you taste it and you’re like, “This sucks.” I don’t think that’s going to happen. The ingredients have integrity all of their own. You can make the flavor argument that they work well together, if you buy the idea of the vodka lengthening the gin, whatever that means. At the end of the day, like I said, it’s just a cocktail. You’re meant to enjoy it and nothing more.
T: I think I’m going to start adopting that as my new thing when I’m making drinks at home. I’m going to start lengthening stuff.
P: Yeah, it’s a good idea.
T: Adding an extra ounce of vodka to the Negroni.
P: Yeah, that’s right. Vodka in my eggs; I’m lengthening the eggs.
T: This coffee needs some. Any final thoughts today on the Vesper?
P: It is a cool cocktail, and it belongs in the conversation of the contemporary canon of classic cocktails. I like it when guests order it. I like the fact that they want to elevate their experience. It shows that they care about what they’re drinking, which I think is cool. From a recipe perspective, it calls for a really unique ingredient in this Kina Lillet, which presents a unique challenge to a bartender who’s trying to make this for you. And the split base of gin and vodka is nothing if not super unique. I do think it has a place, and I think it’s kind of cool and you should order one if you want to have it at a bar. I think you’ll like it if the bartender knows what they’re doing.
T: And if that bar happens to be Manhatta as well, I can’t think of a better view in the city right now to enjoy such an incredible cocktail.
P: It’s a cloudy day today, so I imagine you’d be looking at a white wall of clouds.
T: It is pissing it down here.
P: But yeah, I think you’re right.
T: Yeah, maybe put on a tux.
P: There you go.
Getting to Know Patrick Smith
T: Well, thank you very much for that, Patrick. We’re going to transition into the five final questions of the show where we get to know our guests a little bit more. Let’s kick this off. Question No. 1: What style or category of spirit typically enjoys the most real estate on your back bar?
P: My back bar is littered with Scotch and rum. I love both of these categories of spirit. They’re both really delicious, I love drinking them, and I guess that’s what matters the most. But they’re also really diverse categories from a flavor perspective. With Scotch, you’ve got everything from your very, very light blends or your Lowlands all the way to your really, really smoky powerhouses and your cherry finishes and everything in between. And rum is, I would say, probably the most complex category of spirit that exists. There’s so much to dive into and it’s so fun to drink.
T: If someone were saying you’re only allowed one, if you pick one of those, you’re doing a pretty good job because your options are seemingly limitless.
P: Yeah, it’s a cheat code because they don’t all taste the same. So you can have all these different flavor experiences within the same category.
T: That’s awesome. Question No. 2: Which ingredient or tool do you believe to be the most undervalued in a bartender’s arsenal?
P: I have an ingredient and a tool. For the ingredient, speaking of French aromatized or fortified wine, I really like one called Salers Aperitif. It’s a little bit lower ABV, but it blends super well into cocktails. I love it with agave. I love dropping a little bit into a stirred cocktail. But it also loves citrus. It loves grapefruit. It loves herbs. In terms of what it tastes like, it’s very earthy. And I’ve always said it tastes like dirt in a good way. Salers is a fantastic item for your home bar, or if you’re a bartender, for your back bar. As far as tools go — I guess this is more geared towards a home bartender — I’ve found myself turning to chopsticks when making cocktails at home, to stir them. They work super well, and I don’t always have a bar spoon handy if I am trying to make myself a simple Negroni or Old Fashioned or even a Martini at home. Whereas my chopsticks are in my silverware drawer, so they’re right on hand, and I’ll just grab one. Oh crap, I forgot my bar spoon. Here’s a chopstick. It’s just as good. I love a chopstick at home for stirring cocktails, but it’s also pretty nice for grabbing cherries or olives or something like that. The humble chopstick belongs in a home bartender’s arsenal.
T: Putting it on the pantheon here today. Question No. 3: What’s the most important piece of advice you’ve received while working in this industry?
P: I had a couple of different thoughts about this, but I’ll just say the most simple one, which is to listen more than you talk. I think everybody has something to teach. There’s a moment where you think you’ve learned it all and now your job is to spout all this knowledge, said the podcast guest. The idea that that’s what you’re put on this Earth to do is so self-defeating and it’s pretty conceited. So I always try very, very hard to just shut up and be a fly on the wall in front of really smart people. That will ideally always be true.
T: Fantastic. Wonderful advice right there. Penultimate question for you, Patrick: If you could only visit one last bar in your life, what would it be?
P: This will probably come out of left field because we’ve been very fancy thus far today. But I’m from Wisconsin, and I met my wife in Madison, Wis. We met at this really fantastic dive bar called The Plaza. It’s been standing for many, many decades. There are pool tables, murals of loons and Northwoods lakes and cheap Miller Lite and things like that. So I’m definitely going to The Plaza Tavern and having a Plaza burger.
T: I mean, that sounds wonderful. I love those experiences. I also just love the idea of a dive bar called The Plaza. Was it next door to the Savoy?
P: There’s nothing remotely Plaza-like about it. Yet, no one ever questions the name. It’s just The Plaza.
T: I need to get myself up there.
P: Please do.
T: Final question for you today: If you knew that the next cocktail you drank was going to be your last, what would you order and make?
P: I will probably have a Negroni. I just love Negronis. It’s so much greater than the sum of its parts, and it only tastes like itself. Nothing tastes like a Negroni, and I just think they’re so delicious. I know it’s very simple, but cocktails are meant to be a simple pleasure. I really enjoy drinking them. I guess that’s the only bar it needs to clear for me.
T: Any preferences on the spec or what’s going on in that one?
P: People will play around with dialing up or down the gin or bringing the Campari down a little bit. For myself, I like an equal parts 1-ounce all the way across the board of gin, Campari, and sweet vermouth. I’ll probably use a Cocchi di Torino, a very classic sweet vermouth. I’ll use Campari. I do think Campari belongs in a Negroni. There are a lot of really fantastic replacements or additions to the red bitter category. For me, Negroni has got to have Campari. For gin, if I’m making it for myself, I’ll probably just grab what’s closest to me. I’ll just pick one of the gins that I love. I love St. George Terroir, which is just an absolute banger from California. It’s just spruce tips for days. And I love that gin so much. If it was going to be my last, I would probably go with that.
T: Patrick Smith, thank you so much for joining us today.
P: It’s been my pleasure to be here.
T: Let’s go grab some Vespers.
P: That sounds great.
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Now, for the credits. “Cocktail College” is recorded and produced in New York City by myself and Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tastings director and all-around podcast guru. Of course, I want to give a huge shout-out to everyone on the VinePair team. Too many awesome people to mention. They know who they are. I want to give some credit here to Danielle Grinberg, art director at VinePair, for designing the awesome show logo. And listen to that music. That’s a Darbi Cicci original. Finally, thank you, listener, for making it this far and for giving this whole thing a purpose. Until next time.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.