James Bond at 50: Vesper Lynd and Vodka Martinis
Long-time fans of the James Bond films know that the secret agent enjoys a good vodka martini, shaken not stirred. But what is a vodka martini? Why should it be shaken rather than stirred? And come to think of it, is there even such a thing as a vodka martini? Readers of the Ian Fleming novels may have had a better idea about the answers to these questions,although even there, information is contradictory. Not until the 2006 film version of CASINO ROYALE did the movies get around to giving us a recipe for what Bond drinks.
To begin with, as far as purists are concerned, there is no such thing as a vodka martini; martinis are made with gin, period. Although there are recipes that substitute vodka for gin, the traditional martini-drinker considers the result to be something other than a martini.
The traditional recipe for a “wet” martini is two parts gin and one-half part dry vermouth. The mixture is stirred in ice, then strained into a glass, and garnished with a green pimento olive on a toothpick. This is most likely the drink you would receive if you walked into a bar and simply ordered a “martini” (although bartenders are increasingly likely to ask exactly what you mean when you order the drink, especially shortly after the release of a new James Bond movie).
There are many variations on the martini recipe (such as the “Dirty Martini,” which contains not only an olive but also olive juice). Most relevant to James Bond’s drinking habits is the Dry Martini, which consists of three parts gin to one-half part vermouth, also garnished with an olive. 007’s “vodka martin” appears to be a variation on this, but there is some room for doubt, as we shall see.
In the novel Casino Royale – and later in the film version starring Daniel Craig – Bond gives his preferred recipe, although he does not call it a “vodka martin.” The relevant passage occurs in Chapter 7 – “Rouge et Noir,” when Bond orders drinks for himself and CIA agent Felix Leiter:
“A dry martini,” he said. “One. In a deep champagne goblet.”
“Just a moment. 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?”
“Certainly, monsieur.” The barman seemed pleased with the idea.
“Gosh, that’s certainly a drink,” said Leiter.
Bond laughed. “When I’m…er…concentrating,” he explained, “I never have more than one drink before dinner. But I do like that one to be large and very strong and very cold and very well-made. I hate small portions of anything, particularly when they taste bad. This drink’s my own invention. I’m going to patent it when I can think of a good name.”
As we can see, a Bond’s recipe differs from a Dry Martini in five ways: in addition to three parts gin, it includes one part vodka; it replaces dry vermouth with Kina Lillet; it is shaken instead of stirred; it is served in a champagne goblet; and it substitutes a slice of lemon peel for an olive.
The extra vodka increases the alcohol content and thus the strength of the drink. Kina Lillet is a wine aperitif that lends an ever so slight fruity under-taste – barely discernable beneath the gin and vodka. Shaking the drink with ice chills it to the point where the concoction becomes palatable; at room temperature, it would taste little different from lighter fluid. The lemon peel adds a citrus aroma that helps cover any bitterness in the potent brew. And back at the time of the book’s publication, a champagne goblet was considerably larger than a martin glass; presumably, Bond need more room to fit that extra shot of vodka.
The result is described as a “pale golden drink, slightly aerated by the bruising in the shaker.” Bond sips the concoction and pronounces the result, “Excellent!” – before going on to say that it would be even better with vodka made from grain instead of potatoes. How much difference this would make is open to debate. Although grain-based vodkas are supposed to be smoother, the difference is most notable when the vodka is imbibed straight-up or over ice; for mixed drinks, any brand-name vodka will do – the relatively neutral flavor mixes well with almost anything, making any distinctions between different vodkas fairly negligible.
Now, whether Bond’s drink qualifies as a “vodka martini” is an open question. It is a martini – even by the standards of the purists, because it includes gin – and it does contain vodka, so “vodka martini” sounds correct, if we assume the term indicates a variation on a gin martini, with vodka added. However, Bond does not ask the bartender for a “vodka martini”; he specifically asks for a “dry martini” before giving his recipe. Then he goes on to say he is looking to name the drink.
Bond later chooses the name Vesper Lynd, after the leading lady in the spy drama. However, he never again orders the drink in any of the Fleming novels – which is not too surprising when you consider what ended up happening to Lynd. In QUANTUM OF SOLACE, the film sequel to CASINO ROYALE, we are told that Bond has drowned his sorrow over Vesper by drinking six of the martinis named after her – a feat more superhuman and incredible than surviving a jump from an airplane sans parachute.
Does the absence of the name indicate the absence of the drink? Are all those “vodka martinis, shaken not stirred” that we see in the films supposed to be the Vesper Lynd hiding behind a generic name? The issue is either clouded or resolved in the novel Goldfinger, wherein Bond orders a “Vodka martini, please. With a slice of lemon peel.”
The references to vodka and lemon peel suggest that Bond is ordering his special drink again. As if to underline the connection, Bond is sharing a drink with a character he met in Casino Royale; Bond seems to be ordering the drink as a deliberate call-back to the events in the previous book.
However, even if we assume that Bond has dropped the name “Vesper” because of the painful memories it engenders, he gives no special instructions to the waiter in Goldfinger. Since the scene takes place in a restaurant where Bond is making his first visit, we have to assume that the bartender does not know Bond’s special recipe, so it is unlikely that the agent can be expecting to receive a custom-made drink.
Perhaps this was simply sloppy continuity on the part of Fleming, who may have expected his readers to make the connection to the drink Bond had invented in the earlier novel. Whatever the intent, it seems likely the Bond would be served a simple vodka martini, not a Vesper Lynd.
What, then, is a vodka martini? Simply put, it is a martini that substitutes vodka in place of gin (not a martini that uses vodka in addition to gin). The usual recipe is similar to that of a “wet martini”: two parts vodka and one part dry vermouth; the mixture can be garnished with either an olive or a lemon peel. This is a much less powerful drink than the Vesper Lynd, but Bond may have been moderating his alcohol content based on the fact that he had just completed a double bourbon in the previous chapter.
Personally, I prefer to imagine that Bond continues drinking the Vesper Lynd, rather than the relatively weak vodka martini, simply because the Vesper Lynd is a unique drink – one worthy of the world’s greatest secret agent. (The drink apparently was actually invented by Fleming’s friend Ian Bryce.)
Bond fans wishing to sample their hero’s favorite drink will need to make some adjustments. First, a champagne goblet is no longer necessary; today’s martini glasses will handle the drink perfectly well.
Next, Kina Lillet dropped “Kina” from the name years ago (its use in the dialogue by Daniel Craig is an anachronism, but we’ll give the movie version of CASINO ROYALE credit for staying faithful to the novel in this respect, even if times had changed in the decades separating book publication from film production). There are now two types of Lillet, Rouge and Blanc. For the Vesper Lynd, you want Blanc.*
Also, one should be careful about how liquors may have changed over the years. Gordon’s gin is still on the market, but the version Bond was using back in 1954 (when the novel was published) was probably 100 proof, whereas Gordon’s tends to be 80 proof now. Some would suggest substituting Tanqueray, but this seems a bit of a stretch when Bond’s preferred brand-name gin is still commercially available.
Similar suggestions are made about a choice of vodka – advocating for 100 proof rather than 80 – but since Bond never names a brand it is difficult to state whether this is definitely correct. In the novel version of Casino Royale, Bond suggests that a rice vodka would be “better,” and it is easy enough to imagine that, for Bond, “better” means “stronger.” However, as noted above, the major distinction of grain vodka is that it is smoother – which would have been a bigger consideration in 1954, when alcohols were more likely to be harsh. Today, any brand-name vodka is likely to be smooth enough to work in a mixed drink.
First-time taste-testers are likely to find the Vesper Lynd more than strong enough, even with only 80-proof ingredients. This is a potent concoction – one sip, and you will instantly know why it needs to be shaken over ice: to get the drink cold enough to numb your taste-buds. The lemon peel also helps immensely, but don’t go the extra distance by including lemon juice; the aroma itself is all you need to create a drink that is “large and very strong and very cold and very well-made.”
Try the Vesper Lynd on your friends, and you will likely receive one of two reactions:
- The sissy drinkers (i.e., the vast majority) will react like Count Dracula taking a sip of holy water and never touch the stuff again.
- The real drinkers will nod in appreciation and ask for the recipe. They may also ask for another, but don’t give it to them unless they have a designated driver.
That’s all there is to it. Now, all you need is a tuxedo, a Walter PPK, and you’re ready to follow in the footsteps of your favorite filmic hero. And if you find yourself wondering why Bond would stop ordering such an excellent drink by name, just recall his words from the end of Casino Royale … (No, I’m not going to tell you; look it up yourself.)
- Actually, I have attempted a variation on the Vesper Lynd, using Lillet Rouge. The red tint is not suitable for the usual Vesper Lynd, but I used Vampire Vodka instead of a traditional vodka. The result is an interesting novelty for a Halloween party, but no match for the original.