In Defense of the Vesper
Okay folks, here it is. The last of my quinquina and americano cocktail comparisons had to be for one of the most divisive cocktails in the contemporary canon:
The Vesper Martini.
Yeah, that's right, the James Bond cocktail. The cocktail that thousands of bartenders malign for its “shaken, not stirred” call, their contempt aimed at author Sir Ian Flemming just as much as the RUBE who dares order such an abomination. The cocktail that meme accounts on social media name drop for cheap knee-jerk reactions from bartenders with opinions more rooted in snark than sensibility. The Martini for people that *gasp* don't like gin?!
The cocktail that I tasted dozens of versions of and will now spend the next 14 pages defending.
I guess I should start by admitting I've never seen an entire James Bond film or read a single book. To put it simply, I don't give a damn about the franchise at all. I've also never considered ordering or paying money for a Vesper Martini at a bar. I've made dozens of them over the years, I've tasted plenty, but the drink never hooked me.
That seems like a good place to start this tasting from.
The Vesper Martini first appeared in Casino Royale, published in 1953. In it, James Bond orders this cocktail in a very particular way:
“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.”
Well, that certainly explains the haggard expression on Mr. Bond's face on that old book cover.
Vesper (original recipe)
3 oz London dry gin
1 oz vodka
.5 oz Lillet Blanc
shaken, not stirred
lemon twist garnish
Pardon my language, but this recipe can heck right off. 4.5 ounces of booze? Are you kidding me? No, no, no, let's put that one away and refer to the contemporary recipe with reasonably updated proportions.
Vesper (standard contemporary recipe)
1.5 oz London dry gin
1 oz vodka
.5 oz Lillet Blanc
lemon twist garnish
This recipe is a composite based on the house specs of several world class cocktail bars, recipes available both online and in print, and a survey of nearly a dozen working bartenders. You'll notice that while the gin is halved, the vodka and quinquina remain constant. This seemed strange to me, but we'll get into the ideal spec later.
The Martini, seemingly more than any other cocktail, is one where personal preference matters more than anything else. Everything comes down to preference: from the choice of spirits, fortified wine, and bitters, to the ratio and balance of those ingredients, to the method of preparation, down to the edible and/or aromatic garnishes the cocktail will be served with. It's no surprise that any entry into the canon will be endlessly scrutinized.
So right off the bat, we need to address and dismiss the (mostly) nonsense arguments against the drink.
Shaken or Stirred
The first point of contention among bartenders, cocktail enthusiasts, purists, and your average unassuming drinker is going to be whether or not a Vesper should be shaken or stirred. In addition to stirring and shaking, we may as well address throwing, or rolling, cocktails.
For those unfamiliar with these terms, throwing is a technique where a cocktail is built in a vessel (usually a cocktail tin) and that vessel is filled with ice. At this point, instead of shaking or stirring, you place a strainer over the top of the tin and then pour the cocktail contents into another vessel. You then transfer the cocktail back into its original container and repeat this process until you reach your desired temperature and dilution.
Anyway, this is a trick question, because the best technique for the Vesper, like any Martini, is probably to simply batch it with your desired level of dilution and stick it in a freezer so it may be served as cold as possible.
But yeah, I know that's cheating. So let's address the elephant.
If you flip through old cocktail books, you'll find people used to shake just about everything. Jerry Thomas, Harry Craddock, Charles Baker, Robert Vermire, Harry McElhone...check any gold standard cocktail tome of note and you'll find dozens of recipes with questionable, dated techniques. The absolute rule that spirituous drinks should be stirred and citrusy or juicy drinks shaken has not always been a universal truth (and doesn't always hold). All sorts of Martinis have been shaken since the invention of the cocktail. Case in point: this page from The Savoy Cocktail Book.
That said, if you stop by Pouring Ribbons and order a Vesper from me, I'll be stirring it. Shaking aerates cocktails, which means tiny air bubbles are introduced into the drink. These air bubbles provide texture to otherwise flat liquid which, in turn, affects the flavor of said liquid. Rather than all ingredients coating the palate, some flavors and compounds are suspended in air. This is most evident and more important in citrusy cocktails where harsh acids make direct contact with the tongue. Your mileage may vary with spirituous cocktails, but we'll dig into that further once we begin the tasting.
Vodka: Why Do It?
The second biggest complaint I see levied against the Vesper usually looks like “the vodka is pointless”. People dismiss the cocktail because they have it in their head that the vodka is there to either “lengthen” or "soften" the gin. I disagree.
The vodka does temper the gin, but more importantly, it lengthens the quinquina. Now, to address the two most common rebuttals to this approach:
1. Buh why not just make it all gin? Because simply upping the gin imparts more ginny botanicals (obviously a technical term) which batter the quinquina. Gin is the aggressor in this cocktail and unlike Bond/Flemming, I want to taste the quinquina since it's the most interesting ingredient in the mix.
2. Buh why not just add more quinquina? Well, we are already working with double the quinquina ratio of the original drink. Adding even more quinquina, most of which have at least 100 g/l of sugar, will make for an exceedingly sweet AND bitter cocktail. It's still a modifier, after all.
As if to drive this point home and extra annoy Vesper haters, the contemporary spec increases the vodka to gin ratio of the cocktail from 1:3 to 1:1.5, which I consider a significant bump. I rejiggered this cocktail every way I could to bring it more in line with the original 1:3 ratio, but some extra vodka proved crucial.
In the end, I found the ideal ratio of vodka to gin to be 1:2, a fair split between the original and contemporary recipes. Anything less than .75 oz of vodka caused the gin to dominate the quinquina. This is further evidence the vodka simultaneously subdues the gin and amplifies the quinquina.
As for the contemporary recipes which ask for a full ounce of vodka, barring a really harmonious combination of gin, vodka, and fortified wine, I think that's too much. With the gin reduced to a reasonable portion, there's no reason for the vodka to remain the same. The gin is a little too subdued, the fortified wine isn't amplified relative to the increase in vodka, and the whole thing feels muddied and indecisive. Not bad, but less than ideal.
Additionally, we need to talk about the “neutrality” of vodka in general. Monopolowa, Absolut, Stoli, Tito's, potato, wheat, corn, quinoa, triple distilled, frozen, it doesn't matter. The flavor may be mild, but there's guaranteed to be something on the nose, palate, and finish. Grass, vanilla, malt, lemon, white pepper...you'd be surprised by some of these common tasting notes. Heck, even if all you get is acetone you can pull flavor out of that, some good– think pear, apple, and some bad like turpentine or nail polish remover - sweet and disconcertingly fruity. Still, there's probably something there.
I urge you to stir two vodka Martinis, each with a different vodka. If you can taste the difference, good, let's move on. If you can't taste the difference, let's still move on because you probably don't need to have a strong opinion about the vodka in a Vesper to begin with.
To end this section with a mic drop, I'd like to point you toward one of the best Martinis in the world from one of the best bars in the world, Dante.
You'll notice Dante cuts vodka into their Martini. It's basically a Vesper – even their split of dry and sweet white vermouth brings the fortified wine component more in line with the profile and sugar content of a quinquina. And for heck's sake, how are you going to tell me Dante's Martini isn't one of the best Martinis on the planet? Come on, people. This is almost an auto-win for the Vesper.
Amor y Amargo's mastermind Sother Teague is a renowned bartender and author as well as an infamous Vesper hater. His favorite jab at the Vesper goes something like “James Bond is a fictional character, so why would you order a drink made by a fictional character? I wouldn't order a drink made by Shrek.” It's a cute joke, but the Vesper wasn't invented by a fictional character, it was invented by a real human author.
The Vesper Martini and Nick and Nora Martini (a "dusty" Martini which predates the Vesper by 30 years) were both popularized by pulp novels and demanded to be shaken because they were products of their time, not because they were "made up" by people who didn't know any better. This technique did not come from the imagination of Ian Flemming or Dashiell Hammett, which is usually an argument used to dismiss the Vesper as a whole: it wasn't invented by a working bartender.
You may be surprised to know much of what you drink is not necessarily created by “bartenders,” but cocktail enthusiasts who know how to bartend. This may seem like an overly pedantic distinction, but this whole argument as to whether or not the Vesper is even a “good” drink is itself a bit pedantic.
The rationale that you need to be a professional bartender to create a cocktail is elitist and untrue. I'm sure many of you non-bartender readers know you don't have to be a working professional to create a good drink. I can also attest to tasting some downright vile creations by Big Time Mixologists. This is a silly argument. Let's move on.
Kina Lillet vs Lillet Blanc
Another common complaint is Kina Lillet no longer exists, therefore the cocktail can't be replicated. This is nonsense. By this logic, you could say the Corpse Reviver #2, the Twentieth Century, or any cocktail calling for Lillet invented before 1985 can no longer be made.
As I've already pointed out with the gin, many (most) spirits and liqueurs in existence have changed their production methods or recipes for one reason or another over time.
This is one of the biggest issues with “historical accuracy” in general: we aren't drinking the same spirits, using the same fruit, or drinking the same drinks.
There is an argument that Kina L'Aero Dior is closer to the original Kina Lillet than Lillet Blanc is currently. There are also folks out there who reject this theory, but the truth is, nobody really knows so maybe everyone should just…drink what tastes best?
Chasing whatever we think historical accuracy is will only lead us down the cobbled path of drunks and pseudo-historians.
I can tell you three things:
1) In 1985 Lillet openly acknowledged their recipe changed, and their Wikipedia page specifically mentions lowering sugar content and bitterness. It's absolutely reasonable to assume today's Lillet is less sweet AND less bitter.
2) Categorically, French quinquina and vermouths are not particularly bitter, at least not in the way that comparable Italian or Swedish quinquina or americano are.
3) This is tangential to the second point: Kina L'Aero Dior and Cocchi Americano, the common substitutes for Lillet in cocktails, both bring a lot of gentian and wormwood to the table which is not in line with any French quinquina I've ever tasted. So to say those two bottles are truer to the original Lillet seems a bit of a stretch.
Regardless, it's time to let the quinquina and americano speak for themselves.
Here's what we're working with for this tasting.
London Dry Gin
I tried this with the original Gordon's call as well as Tanqueray and Broker's. Ultimately, I stuck with Gordon's for the simple fact that it is a slightly mellower gin which allows for the complexities of the fortified wine and the vodka (yes, the vodka) to come through.
Gordon's is all at once everything you want in a London Dry Gin all while somehow being fairly unexciting. It has juniper, it has coriander, it has citrus, and a pleasant licorice note running from nose to finish. On its own, it tastes stronger than it is (40% ABV in the US) which makes it a fine enough workhorse gin. It's not as coriander-spicy as Tanqueray or as citrusy as Beefeater so while it doesn't tend to wow anyone, it can probably satisfy everyone. Gordon's does have a nice round mouthfeel which is important for a Martini.
It's strange that for all the talk of the authenticity of ingredients, no one really talks about the gin. Sure, Kina Lillet is probably a different product than it used to be, but there was only a half-ounce of it in a Vesper whereas Gordon's London Dry Gin comprises most of the cocktail and has definitely seen some production changes over the years.
In general, spirits have all gotten lower proof over time. Some of that has to do with better technology and distillation methods, some of it has to do with avoiding higher taxes (generally, the higher the proof, the higher the tax), and some has to do with a global push to reduce the potency of spirits for “public safety.”
Gordon's gin has gotten progressively weaker in both the UK and the US since the Vesper was created. In 1953, it would have been anywhere between 43% and 47% ABV. Today it is 37.5% in the UK, 40% in the US, and up to 43% in some markets like Asia.
It may come as a surprise that back in the 50's, the vodka was probably stronger than the gin. This is important to note as we talk about the purpose of the vodka in the Vesper today.
First, don't be a dismissive smartass about vodka or judge the people who enjoy it. Second, don't let anybody tell you that vodka is flavorless. You can make vodka out of just about anything and those different bases will impart flavor and/or texture to the final product.
Flavor neutrality in vodka is a misnomer. Neutrality is defined as an “absence of decided views, expression, or strong feeling.” Take note of the specificity of the language here, as it does not say neutrality is the absence of ALL views, expression, or strong feeling. Vodka may not have a lot to say, but it's definitely whispering something.
Many vodkas are oily, sweet, grassy, malty, maybe with hints of vanilla or oak. They are not without flavor or texture. Don't believe me? Why don't you try a blind taste test between water and vodka? If you're still having trouble differentiating between “flavor neutrality” and “nothing” your palate might not be sensitive enough to warrant caring about whether or not your gin is mingling with vodka in the first place.
For this tasting, I tried Monopolowa (a Polish potato vodka), Absolut (a Swedish wheat vodka), Hangar One (an American grape and grain vodka), and Stolichnaya (a Russian wheat and rye vodka). Monopolowa and Hangar One both have incredibly round and oily textures, but provide a bit too much flavor (think vanilla and malt), making for a perceptively sweeter drink.
On the other hand, the Absolut's light grass and citrus helped elevate the quinquina and the spiciness of the Stoli made for a perfect bridge between the gin and fortified wine. Both of these grain-based vodkas had much lighter textures than their potato and grape adjunct competitors. Ultimately, I had a slight preference for the Stolichnaya.
Apparently, before the Smirnoff ad campaign, James Bond preferred Stoli as well. And yes, the vodka would have been much stronger back when the Vesper was created. According to Dave Wondrich, it would have been 100 proof which is in fact stronger than the gin.
Finally, I can talk about the part of this cocktail that's fun and exciting instead of arguing about shaking and vodka!
This is the third most debated aspect of the Vesper: can it be made without Kina Lillet produced in the early 1950s? This takes us down a rabbit hole and proposes even more questions like did Kina Lillet ever change at all, and was it significantly more bitter than today's Lillet Blanc? Does the bitterness even matter? Regardless of historical authenticity (a phrase which means less and less to me the more I learn), was it ever the best fortified wine for the job? Well, we're going to find out!
For a full breakdown on the categories of quinquina and americano along with detailed tasting notes for all twelve bottles in this tasting, check my Quinquina and Americano Tasting Guide.
Yes, I know the original cocktail didn't call for any bitters. Still, the best Vesper I'd ever tasted up until now was Pouring Ribbons' house spec which called for a dash of orange bitters (a Toby Maloney spec, I've surmised). I also recently tried Leandro DiMonriva's (aka The Educated Barfly) spec which calls for grapefruit bitters. Either of these additions improved nearly every single version of the Vesper, so guess what?
This Vesper is getting orange bitters. I'll get into why exactly this minor improvement proves to be so crucial in the final instructional section of this article.
Lemon Twist Garnish
The original recipe specifies for the twist to be dropped into the drink. If you recall, the original recipe is also a bowl of booze. Unless Bond was chugging what is essentially a double-size Martini, that drink got warm. And nobody likes warm gin. The lemon peel adds brightness and acidity over time, which help keep the cocktail lively and bracing as it warms.
But! I absolutely hate dropping citrus peels into cocktails served up, choosing instead to notch a twist onto the rim of a glass. I didn't spend a full minute chilling your glass and stirring your cocktail to below freezing just to drop a 70-degree piece of fruit peel into it. It's like the opposite of an ice cube, it will warm the cocktail.
Notching the twist gives you the aromatic of the lemon without actually infusing the cocktail with the peel, which is precisely what happens whenever a citrus twist is dropped into a cocktail. Yet, it's such a specific call with a practical application, I wanted to incorporate the citrus twist into the drink. The orange bitters are a good start, but I find they primarily temper the sweetness of the quinquina.
My solution to this problem, specifically for the Vesper, is to perform a regal stir. A regal stir, like the regal shake, is when a piece of citrus peel is placed into the mixing vessel with the cocktail while it is chilled. Unlike a regal shake, where the ice “muddles” the peel and releases the oils in the tin, the regal stir provides a more subtle oil infusion from the stirring. The idea isn't to make the drink taste like lemon, but to add some drying, astringent citrus to brighten and balance the finished cocktail.
Before the real tasting could begin to determine the best quinquina/americano, I had to settle on a recipe. This meant not only settling on a spec but choosing a definitive method and technique.
For this tasting, I first needed to perform a series of experiments to not only nail down the most agreeable choice of gin (high-proof or low-proof, citrusy or spicy) and vodka (flavor and texture being the highest considerations) for our quinquina and americano, but I needed to determine two much more important elements.
Do I scale the original recipe down by half or go with the contemporary rejiggering which sees both the vodka and quinquina increased in proportion to the gin?
Do I shake, stir, or throw it?
After a series of experiments with the “Big Three” (Lillet Blanc, Cocchi Americano Bianco, and Tempus Fugit Kina L'AEro D'or), I determined the perfect recipe for a well-balanced balanced expression of the cocktail no matter the choice of gin, vodka, or fortified wine. The original ratios simply don't allow the quinquina to do anything. There isn't much movement on the palate, and as it sits, it does the classic Martini move of turning into a coupe of lukewarm gin.
Meanwhile, the contemporary recipe almost reframes or reimagines the recipe as less of a super-strong Martini and more of a 50/50 Martini where the fortified wine component is very fortified. My spec dials that in further for both balance and a little extra punch. As my partner noted: “I prefer the bitter astringency of quinquina more than the bitter astringency of gin, especially as it sits.” Nailed it.
Of course, my preference will be for the recipe which highlights the fortified wine. Exact specs should always be taken with a grain of salt and adjusted for preference, but to have a solid baseline for comparison does matter for these tastings.
The technique was a little less clear-cut. I approached this tasting with an implicit bias: I don't think this, or any other Martini, should be shaken. At the same time, I can't avoid a conversation about the heart of this cocktail: it's supposed to be way too strong, tempered only by dilution and temperature. This is when I started exploring throwing as a potential compromise.
Kaori Kurakami of Tokyo's Bar High Five is known for throwing her Bamboo and it is, far and away, the best Bamboo I've ever tasted. While the magic of travel certainly heightens such subjective experiences, the consistency of the cocktail over several visits spanning several years solidifies this technique as more than nostalgic wonder.
So I sought out to explore if throwing was the solution to the shake/stir argument which often derails thoughtful debates about the build of the Vesper itself. Guess what? This experiment was the biggest derailment of all!
The reason Bar High Five's Bamboo works and my thrown Vesper didn't (besides Kurakami being an infinitely better bartender than I) comes down to what's in the tin and how chilling and dilution work. In short, unless you're incredibly well-versed at throwing, you will not get a full-strength, spirit-based cocktail cold enough quickly enough to make for an ideal serve.
A Bamboo can be successfully thrown because of its proof – it will reach its thermal equilibrium and get as cold as it possibly can long before the high-proof Vesper. It simply takes more energy to chill (and consequently dilute) high-proof alcohol than low-proof alcohol. In the case of the Vesper, you'll struggle to reach a temperature as cold as stirring or shaking, and by the time you do, you'll more than likely have over-diluted the cocktail.
It doesn't seem as though anyone has ever publicly conducted an experiment to see if throwing/rolling can chill a full-strength cocktail to thermal equilibrium as effectively as stirring or shaking, so I'm giving the benefit of the doubt to the masters of this technique. That said, if you aren't one of those super badasses, I wouldn't bother trying.
So now that I'm done distracting us from the original question, let's get to shaking and stirring. If you are unfamiliar with the basic laws of thermodynamics and how they relate to cocktails, I highly recommend reading Dave Arnold's incredible article Cocktail Science in General Part 1. This topic is also explored in greater depth in his book Liquid Intelligence from pages 63 to 114. Yeah, there's a lot to cover.
The TLDR is you cannot chill a cocktail without simultaneously diluting it. It's also worth noting all cocktails will have a point called thermal equilibrium at which they cannot get any colder. The higher the ABV, the more energy is required to chill that spirit to its lowest temperature. Higher proof spirits can therefore get colder than lower proof spirits. This is easily demonstrated by placing a bottle of vodka in a freezer along with a beer. The beer will freeze and, unless you are using a low-proof vodka with additives and an industrial freezer, your vodka will stay liquid, albeit thicc and viscous.
With these basic concepts out of the way, we can talk a little more about shaking versus stirring. Quickly, to dispel a myth, shaking does not get a drink colder than stirring, but it will do it faster and more efficiently at the cost of textural stability.
Just stir the damn drink. Use a bit of cracked ice in addition to your standard-sized cubes. Instead of a 25-30 second stir, maybe you'll have to stir it for 45-50 seconds, but the end result will be the same as long as you reach thermal equilibrium and are mindful of your dilution. Well, almost the same because it will be ready to consume upon serving without any textural or perceived flavor changes on account of aeration.
The other thing I want to note is how quickly it takes a shaken Vesper to settle and become indiscernible from a stirred Vesper. There's an idea that once you shake a drink, it's forever ruined – aerated to the point that it magically retains its bubbles forever. That's not even close to accurate.
If you're in total control of your dilution, you can technically go ahead and shake your Vesper. It will come out cloudy and clumsy on the palate, but it will correct itself in about a minute. In most public settings, the drink will probably settle and be indiscernible from its stirred counterpart by the time it arrives to you.
Back in 2010, Dave Arnold performed a tasting to compare and contrast shaken vs stirred cocktails. The problem is he chose a Negroni and a Manhattan, not a Martini. Neither the Manhattan nor the Negroni has come close to being canonized as shaken drinks, whereas every bartender in existence has been asked to make a shaken Martini. I'm surprised he didn't perform this tasting with the most widely debated cocktail in the shake/stir argument.
In Mr. Arnold's experiment, the panel tasted blind and some felt they could discern the difference between the shaken and stirred versions of these drinks for up to 5 minutes. This will not hold true for all cocktails depending on the ingredients.
Both Negronis and Manhattans have anywhere between way more and way, way more sugar than a Martini or Vesper. This is important because sugar IS the textural modifier in stirred cocktails. Sugar also affects how well drinks “hold together” when shaken. Additionally, a Negroni is served on the rocks, which helps rectify the shaken texture faster than if it were served up.
Why does this matter, you ask? In Liquid Intelligence, Dave Arnold explicitly states, “Booze won't hold texture when shaken.” This is important to note with regard to the shake/stir Martini debate. This is also, in my opinion, where the conversation should end. "Booze won't hold texture when shaken."
He goes on to cite the various textural agents, mostly fruit and vegetable juices, which are commonly used in cocktails to hold aeration. Even using freshly squeezed citrus against clarified citrus means you'll achieve vastly different textures and levels of aeration. Without these textural modifiers, shaken alcohol loses its aeration in less than a minute. In fact, alcohol alone won't even hold aeration if it is force carbonated.
For a drink as dry as a Martini, this is important because it means you can shake the cocktail to thermal equilibrium in less than ten seconds, strain it, and in about a minute it will be almost entirely indiscernible visually, texturally, and in flavor. Meanwhile, it could take you almost the same amount of time to stir the cocktail to the same temperature and target dilution.
The end result? The exact same drink. If you're controlling your dilution, hitting your washline, and chilling your glassware, your technique doesn't matter as much as you think. I used a food thermometer on every single one of my Vespers and there was no difference in temperature upon serving.
Keep this in mind the next time someone asks you to shake their Martini: it's easier for you and it's the same cocktail regardless.
Yet even knowing this, I stirred each expression. Why? Because not every quinquina is the same. Some quinquina, especially those made from red wine grapes or with tea as a botanical, will retain some aeration longer than others.
I also simply don't like the flavor or texture of a shaken Martini as much as a stirred Martini. Aerating botanical-heavy ingredients such as vermouth and gin can cause your palate to perceive or pick up on aromatic compounds differently. Again, this all evens out over time, so you do you.
Since there is no real advantage for me to shake for the purpose of these tastings, it seemed best to stir all of the expressions.
Finally, The Tasting
I've kept you waiting long enough. The winner is…
Vesper (Corpse Revived 2021 Champion)
1.5 oz Gordon's London Dry Gin
.75 oz Stolichnaya or other grain-based vodka
.5 oz Tempus Fugit Kina L'AEro D'or
1 dash orange bitters
regal stir with lemon twist trimmings
lemon twist garnish
I don't know if this is what Sir Ian Flemming was drinking while hammering away at his typewriter, but it certainly should have been. I doubt the quinquina was meant to punch through quite like this, but I'd much rather have a little extra bite from a beautiful quinquina than double up on the gin.
Perfectly balanced and decidedly unique, this expression does a wonderful job of differentiating itself from being a “Lillet Martini,” which is more often than not what most folks are familiar with. Still, it keeps the focus on the modifiers rather than the base spirits.
Below are the full tasting notes of the final tasting. The first nine are all somewhere between good and great, while the bottom three are unsuccessful expressions.
1. Tempus Fugit Kina L'Aero D'Or - This is by far my favorite expression of the cocktail. The Kina is a dream. Everything is perfectly balanced. It's fruity, confectionary, bitter, and punchy – the punchiest of all. The Kina will take over by the end, but if you weren't down for something bitter, you wouldn't be messing with Kina, right?
2. Cocchi Americano Bianco – Smooth, perfectly balanced, and complimentary. The extra sugar and bitterness from the Cocchi are very much welcome. A whisper of vanilla on the finish ties things up with a bow. The Cocchi is the star of the show here, providing a nice blanket of baking spices while lifting with its wormwood and cinchona. The cinnamon, orange, and vanilla punch through as it warms. This one edges out the Cap Corse Blanc because it sits better.
3. Mattei Cap Corse Blanc – The best use of the Cap Corse Blanc in any of my tastings so far. All of the rich, oxidized fruit notes of the quinquina are on full display. It's fruity, bitter, fantastic. The mouthfeel is nice and oily without the sweetness of Cocchi. Delicious, dusty gentian, apricot, cinchona, lemon. This feels like what the Lillet Blanc wishes it could be. This was tied with Cocchi for me, but it does fall apart a bit at the very end of its life.
4. Bonal – Smokey, savory, bitter, and confectionary. The Bonal makes for a wild, exciting ride from start to finish. A nice toffee and cacao note on the finish ties everything together nicely. This is just a badass drink. This could make Vesper fans out of whiskey lovers.
5. Lillet Blanc – A good cocktail, but hardly more interesting than a Dry Martini. I'm not mad at it, just a little disappointed. Does nothing to differentiate itself as a cocktail worth its own name. The Lillet is very subtle, with the gin being the star of the show. As is the case anytime Lillet enters the equation, it rears its delicious fruity head around the mid-life of the cocktail. It brings a nice peachiness, but I do feel the drink falls apart a bit as it warms, and the astringent notes of the gin flirt with the inherently astringent quinquina. It is most delicious at the very tail end of the cocktail's life when all the oxidized white wine notes and peach of the Lillet completely take over.
6. Maurin Quina – Makes for a very tasty cocktail, but with the caveat that you're going to get a lot of cherry and almond. This automatically makes it a distant half-sibling of a Vesper, hardly recognizable as anything other than a Maurin Quina Martini. That isn't a bad thing, but still a poor example of a Vesper. Really evens out a bit as it sits and the gin comes through a little stronger. If you like really obvious fruit in your Martini, this is the version for you. Stays good until the end.
7. Dubonnet Rouge – This is the cocktail Lillet Rouge wishes it could make. The Dubonnet's tannic tea and red wine flavors are tempered with blackberry and jammy grape notes. Interesting and non-traditional without acting out like Maurin Quina. Makes for a nice, darker expression of the cocktail which still retains all of its bright attack. Gets a little boring toward the end as everything falls a little flat.
8. Cocchi Americano Rosa – Good, nicely balanced. The Cocchi Rosa tends to bring a bubblegum note (strawberry and banana) and celery (probably Angelica root) to the mix and this is no exception. A push and pull between fruit and savory spice. A little too busy on the palate, almost to the point of being disjointed. The americano and the gin seem to be playing tug of war rather than working together. As it sits, things fall into the balance and Cocchi Rosa mellows out and plays nice with the gin. The synthetic and vegetal notes fall into balance with the gin. Off-putting upfront, but sits well enough.
9. Byrrh – Bright, bitter, and peppery. Well-balanced. All herbs and spice up front with a little bit of fruit to balance things out. Similar to the Bonal but overall a little less interesting and less balanced. Starts to fall apart as it sits, becoming a little too astringent. I thought it would be amazing, but it ended up just pretty good.
10. Cap Corse Rouge – Bitter with lots of dusty gentian. Similar to the Byrrh and Bonal Vespers, but a little more bitter and astringent and overall less balanced. There's less fruit and spice than the Byrrh offers and less baking spice than the Bonal. Gets a little too bitter and astringent as the rougher edges of the quinquina make friends with the harsher notes of the gin. Barely holds itself together as a good cocktail by the end. It technically works, but I do not recommend it.
11. Lillet Rose – Relatively tasty, playing like a more interesting version of the Lillet Blanc Vesper. The quinquina is a bit thin and astringent, making for what I feel is a slightly imbalanced cocktail out of the gate. It finds its stride after a few minutes as the Lillet Rose really shines. Thankfully it is such a soft and bright quinquina, it makes for a lively experience. The flavors are good, but the cocktail itself isn't. Unfortunately, the whole thing gets astringent and unpleasant toward the end. Do not recommend.
12. Lillet Rouge – The tannic red wine base of the Lillet Rouge makes for a disjointed cocktail. Like the Lillet Rose, the reduced sugar content coupled with quinine astringency makes for a thin, imbalanced drink. This one is much less interesting than other Lillet expressions. Never finds balance. In fact, it gets worse as it sits. Do not recommend.
Build It (or Batch It)
So how do you build the best Vesper Martini? I really wasn't kidding when I said to pre-batch and dilute it, stick it in a freezer, and serve it as cold as possible.
Should you make it easy on yourself and take this advice, the only thing you need to do is determine your preferred dilution and multiply your ingredients by the number of cocktails you plan to bottle. In general, cocktails will be anywhere from 25%-45% water. There’s no magic number for the amount of water to add because your choice of gin, vodka, and fortified wine will affect your optimal dilution.
Here's the simplest way to determine how much water to add to a batch: make your ideal Vesper, measure its total volume, and subtract your starting volume pre-dilution. If you go with my recommended recipe, you'll subtract 2.75 oz from your final volume to determine how much water to add to your batch per cocktail. I’ve found 1.25 oz water to be ideal, or about 31% dilution.
If batching, you can then determine the volume of whatever container you're using and divide it by the volume of a single cocktail. My Vesper Martini will come to an icy cold, reasonably-sized four-ounce portion so I can fit six in a standard 750ml/25 ounce bottle, eight in a liter/33 ounce bottle, and so on. To fill a 750ml bottle, I multiply each of my ingredients by 6, including water, and funnel them into the bottle. Done.
Keep in mind that if you over dilute your cocktail with too much water, it may actually freeze in your freezer! To help combat this, I would recommend opting for higher proof spirits to begin with.
Now, to make a Vesper to order, I do have a few suggestions.
Choice of Gin
The choice of gin most certainly matters, but I found different bottles, despite proof or profile, didn't affect the rankings. Any London Dry Gin you would want to use in a Martini will be fine, but I ultimately found that I preferred the softer, well-balanced Gordon's to Beefeater, Broker's, or Tanqueray, if for no other reason than it allowed the fortified wine to shine. And considering the choice of fortified wine is the only thing keeping this from being a Martini (quinquina vs. vermouth), I like to avoid clobbering it with a big gin.
Not every gin cocktail needs to be built around a 47% ABV juniper bomb. Just use Gordon's. It's easy to find and won't dominate the cocktail. As an aside, Taipei-based bartender Sarah Akromas recommends Plymouth gin, which I wholeheartedly support.
Choice of Vodka
I think a spicier, grain-based vodka is the best call here, but anything which aims to be neutral will work. Apparently, in Casino Royale, Bond himself prefers a grain vodka over the potato vodka he was served. For all my talk of the intricacies and subtleties of vodka's flavors, at the end of the day it's still vodka, you know?
Some of the newer, more flavorful vodkas on the market, many of which are made from non-traditional ingredients, tend to be too flavorful, often tasting more like white whiskey or malt wine. And I probably don't have to say this, but please stay away from flavored vodka.
Of my multiple builds, the contemporary spec almost skews too sweet for my palate. This is easily rectified with bitters which dry the drink out and add an additional botanical.
Orange is going to be the most universally successful bitter to incorporate. Your mileage may vary with grapefruit bitters – they're great with lighter quinquina/americano like Lillet Blanc and Cocchi Americano, but don't work as well with darker or more oxidized expressions like Byrhh or Bonal.
I've also seen recipes out there calling for a dash of Angostura bitters if using Lillet Blanc, presumably to chase that mythical Kina Lillet. I think a spicy orange bitter like Regans or The Bitter Truth provides enough baking spice to work just fine.
If you're going to garnish this drink with a lemon twist anyway, why not take the trimmings from your peel and drop them into the mixing glass? Just a little bit of lemon oil incorporated into the drink makes for a brighter, livelier cocktail that sits better over time.
As a general rule, you should prepare your garnish before you build your cocktail so you aren't wasting time peeling, trimming, and garnishing once the cocktail is already finished and should be on its way to its intended imbiber. This means you should theoretically have lemon peel scraps which should go into the mixing glass along with the bitters.
This extra bit of citrus oil, especially in combination with the bitters, both dries the drink out and keeps it popping from start to finish.
Shake or Stir?
Stir it, duh.
Or shake it, I don't care! Considering it only takes a minute for a shaken Vesper to become mostly indiscernible from a stirred Vesper, you should be more concerned with controlling your dilution – the real challenge with shaking. If you pack enough ice into your tin, you should be able to achieve this goal fairly easily.
The only caveat is if you're using a red wine or tannic quinquina as they can hold their aeration a little too long. Or maybe you're one of those WEIRDOS who likes their first sip of a Martini to be aerated. That's fine. In most cases, you won't get much more than a couple sips before it texturally falls flat anyway.
Chill your glassware! This has a greater effect than you may think on your cocktails. Simple temperature tests show that pouring an icy cold cocktail into a room temperature glass will immediately warm the drink right up. On the other hand, a glass pulled from a freezer will be colder than your cocktail which will help keep it at its coldest temperature for as long as possible.
Hopefully, you've wasted enough of your time reading about the Vesper that you won't need to run around complaining about it anymore. Verdict: Vespers are Okay!
Now, pardon me as I drown an ounce and a half of navy strength gin in an equal amount of dry vermouth like a real tough guy.
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