Making a James Bond martini
“Just a moment [Bond said]. 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?” —Ian Fleming, Casino Royale
A few things to note about the Vesper martini, as many things have changed since it was first penned down.
Gordons no longer makes gin at 94 proof, it’s been diluted down to 80 proof. The drink is shaken to remove potential oiliness from what was then inferior potato based vodka, something that is much less common now. Kina Lillet no longer exists. Its replacement Lillet Blanc does not have the quinine bitterness that was a key component of Kina Lillet.
When I made this drink using the instructions as directed, (with Gordon’s gin, Smirnoff Vodka, and Lillet Blanc) one thing became obvious. The Lillet Blanc was so light as to be overpowered by the gin, even when diluted by a measure of vodka.
The solution, as suggested by Esquire, was to increase the percentage of vodka, which I upped it to 2 measures. With this the light citrus of Lillet Blanc became more apparent. However I’m always reminded that this drink is after all, a martini, not a cosmo. So the Lillet Blanc should never be more than a hint in the drink.
However this didn’t solve the problem of the missing bitter taste. As I don’t have quinine powder just yet, I attempted two potential remedies. One was tonic water, which does have quinine, the other being Angostura. Both are lacking in their own way.
First Angostura bitterness is not the same as quinine bitterness. Where quinine is medicinally bitter, the Angostura has a distinctive root/bark flavor in addition to its bitterness. It just makes the drink taste like a root beer martini with a hint of juniper and orange.
As for tonic water, it was not a good substitute since it instead increased the sugar content, thus sweetening the drink.
A thought occured to me why Bond’s formulation was why it was. When making an old fashioned, only 1-2 dashes of bitters are needed, as the flavor is pungent enough to change the taste of the bourbon. If Kina Lillet was Lillet with quinine bitters, then in the past half a measure would be strong enough to power past the gin, especially at a 3 to 1 dilution.
The other thought I had was, did historic Kina Lillet even taste as citrusy? Surely the quinine would’ve been the predominant taste in that vermouth. Kina Lillet stopped being produced in the 1960s because bitterness went out of fashion in drinks, to be replaced by the more sweeter, floral tastes we’re accustomed to now in cocktails.
In a way, my search to approximate the taste of the original Vesper martini reminds me of re-enactment historians. It’s an attempt to understand the past by experiencing in as close of a way as possible the conditions of that time.
But one key insight is still missing from me. What did Kina Lillet really taste like? What were its primary characteristics, bitterness or citrusness? Until that piece of the puzzle is known, all our guesses at approximating taste will just be random darts thrown on a wall.
January 31, 2010