The most famous go-to drink in the world, and why you should have one of your own.
Say it with me: “Vodka martini, shaken, not stirred.”
With those words, James Bond helped launch the vodka era in American cocktails, for better or for worse. In the ensuing decades, vodka eclipsed every other spirit to become the best-selling distilled alcohol in America, a lofty position it still holds today. One can’t attribute this rise entirely to Bond, of course … but he played a part.
Bond’s go-to drink might be the most famous cocktail recipe on earth – or at least the most-quoted – but it’s probably not the best. Bond liked his martinis dry, which meant little or no French vermouth, and the switch from gin to vodka removed a whole host of botanicals from the equation. The shaken-not-stirred part? That won’t “bruise” the alcohol (which is nonsense), but what it will do is both dilute and aerate the drink substantially more than stirring. The funny thing is: this has a much more profound impact on a gin martini, where the aeration changes the aromatic notes, and the dilution has a noticeable impact on flavor. Vodka is made to be flavorless, for all intents and purposes; all you’re doing by shaking instead of stirring is reducing the alcohol burn.
Don’t get me wrong: Bond’s martini isn’t bad – a crisp, chilly, nearly-flavorless drink with a silky-smooth mouth feel – but it lacks complexity. Then again, maybe that’s why Bond gave up the Vesper for it in the first place: too much complexity.
The Vesper? That was Bond’s first drink of choice, created for the original Bond novel, Casino Royale, by its author Ian Fleming. You can hear Daniel Craig detail it in the video linked above, rattling off the ingredients rapid-fire, and you can also find it below. Much more nuanced than the drink that came to define him, Bond’s Vesper features both vodka and gin, along with Kina Lillet (now known in a slightly modified form as Lillet Blanc) and a thin slice of lemon peel.
The drink is named after the character Vesper Lynd, the only woman Bond ever truly loved. How unfortunate that she was blackmailed into being a double agent and eventually killed herself, leaving a note professing her love for Bond. While he shrugs it off to his superiors, later novels show that he never really got over her.
“Dirty,” “dry,” or “naked”? Get the full introduction to Martinis in “Beyond Shaken Not Stirred:Uncovering the Martini.”
Can you blame a guy for switching drinks after that?
So why have a go-to drink at all? Well, for starters, it makes things simple. Once you figure out what you like, you can walk into just about any bar in the world, rattle off the request, and know you’ll be getting something that won’t make you want to take it to the restroom and pour it down the toilet. Beyond that, people respect a man who knows what he wants. It lets the bartender know you’re not a tourist – not the kind of guy who’s going to send his drink back because he didn’t know what Campari tastes like. It also lets you test out a new bar or bartender and see if their mixing’s any good, or if you should just order a beer the next time around.
While Bond may represent an extreme case – a man who never deviates from his go-to drink no matter what – it’s still not a bad idea to have a cocktail in mind that you know you like. Mine’s the Manhattan. Bond’s is the vodka martini. Perhaps yours will be the Vesper. Why not check out the recipe below, try it for yourself, and see what you think?
The James Bond Martini
Scowl or smirk at the vermouth (depending on which version of Bond you like), then throw it away. Pour the vodka over ice in a shaker, shake vigorously, and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Twist the lemon peel over the drink to express its essential oils, then drop it in. Sip at a casino, surrounded by beautiful women.
The Vesper Martini
Combine liquid ingredients in a cocktail shaker over ice. Shake vigorously and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Twist the lemon peel over the drink to express its essential oils. Sip alone in a darkened room, staring pensively out through the window as rain falls on the town in which you once knew love.