No cocktail sums up James Bond better than the Vesper Martini. It's featured in Ian Fleming's very first Bond novel, Casino Royale. It's named after Vesper Lynd, the original Bond girl, and one of the only women he truly loved. It's why Bond's drinks are always shaken, never stirred. According to Fleming, the Vesper is "strong and cold and very well-made"—much like 007 himself.
In other words, the Vesper is one hell of a drink. It's too bad that you'll never get to try it.
Two of the Vesper's key ingredients, Gordon's Gin and vodka, are available at any liquor store, but the third and final element causes problems. Kina Lillet, the aromatized wine that gives the Vesper its distinct, bitter edge, no longer exists.
And that's a damn shame. Kina Lillet is a key ingredient in many early 20th-century cocktails, including the Vesper and the Corpse Reviver No. 2. Without it, scores of classic drinks are lost forever. Lillet still makes a similar product, Lillet Blanc, but it's just not the same because it lacks quinine, Kina Lillet's signature ingredient.
As told by Anistatia Miller, a cocktail historian and co-author of Shaken Not Stirred: A Celebration of the Martini, Lillet's story goes something like this: In the 1700's, a French scientist named Charles Marie de la Condamine discovered that quinine, a compound found in cinchona bark, is an excellent treatment for malaria.
Given that Europeans were quickly expanding into mosquito-infested territories like India and Africa, this was big news. Unfortunately, Condamine had a problem: quinine is very, very bitter. As a point of comparison, quinine is also the main ingredient in tonic water. You know that pleasantly tart flavor in your gin and tonic? That's the quinine doing its thing.
When France's Foreign Legion pushed into North Africa in the 1800s, the French government commissioned a number of quinquinas—quinine-flavored wines—from local wineries. The goal was to create a beverage that tasted good, while still giving troops the quinine that they needed. It worked. The soldiers developed a taste for quinquinas, and kept drinking them after returning home.
According to Miller, Kina Lillet became one of France's most popular quinquinas, thanks to the drink's distinct gold hue and the winery's incredibly successful advertising campaign. Before too long, Kina Lillet's popularity spread overseas, and it became a trendy aperitif in post-Prohibition America, as well.
Over time, Americans' tastes changed. Lillet did, too. In 1986, under pressure from the international market, the winemakers removed most of Lillet's quinine and dropped the Kina label (in French, "kina" is another word for quinine). The result was "fresher, fruitier, and less bitter." The winery called it Lillet Blanc, and it's been available ever since.
While Kina Lillet and the original Vesper are dead and gone, there are steps that you can take to replicate Fleming's original cocktail. Some mixologists suggest using another quinquina, Cocchi Americano, as a substitute. Miller has an even better idea: put the quinine back in.
"My husband and I actually prefer to add a few dashes of cinchona-infused spirit or cinchona distillate to our Vesper made with Lillet Blanc," she says.|
Thankfully, infused spirits are easy to make (and they impress houseguests, too). Take an alcohol of your choosing—vodka, which is largely flavorless, works well—and pour some into a mason jar.
Add a pinch of cinchona bark, screw the lid on tight, and let the jar sit in a dark place. Shake the mixture a few times a day, and sample regularly. The infusion is finished when you think it tastes good. At that point, simply strain out the solid matter and enjoy.
It's a little extra work, but you'll be one of the few people who've sampled a Vesper the way it was meant to taste. After all, Bond settles for nothing less than perfection; neither should you.
Photo by Gary Friedman/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
3 Parts Gordon's Gin
1 Part Vodka
½ Part Lillet Blanc
2-3 Dashes Cinchona Infused Liquor (to taste)
Add gin, vodka, Lillet, and the cinchona infusion to a cocktail shaker filled with ice.
Strain into martini glass. Garnish with lemon peel.
Photos by MGM/Everett Collection