Sound pre-prandial practice
“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.”
We say yes to that. In particular, there’s a distinctive extra tremor from having your first drink on an empty, or relatively empty stomach, but it will only take you so far. This policy lets you enjoy it, but not too much.
Something good and something rum
Bond’s first drink is an Americano, an Italian cocktail that has been popular for more than a century, even if it’s now sometimes seen as a sort of proto-Negroni. It began as the Milano–Torino (Milan/Turin), being made up of Campari (from Milan), sweet vermouth (from Turin) and soda. After the First World War it became popular with the many visiting Americans and was renamed the Americano. It’s a fine bittersweet aperitivo, bracing, refreshing and good for the appetite.
The recipe is simple: mix equal parts of Campari and sweet (rosso, red) vermouth and add soda to taste; serve with plenty of ice and a slice of orange. The question is, which vermouth? The Bondian drinker has several options here. The classic high-end choice would be Cocchi Vermouth Torino, which is superb and maintains the original Milano–Torino connection. Then you could go for something more show-offishly eclectic (and possibly more economical); try, say, Casa Mariol Vermut, a rare Spanish/Catalan vermouth (vermut). Although the Americano is Italian, we shouldn’t forget that Bond is in France and he may well have been served Noilly Prat Rouge: another respectable choice. Finally, if you want to put some precious drinkers or snobbish bar staff back in their boxes, insist on Cinzano or Martini Rosso, suggesting dismissively that the subtleties of the swankier brands are overwhelmed by the Campari in an Americano and are a mere affectation.
Of course the other thing you can do to establish your credentials is to note that vermouth is a fortified wine, not a spirit, and that it should be refrigerated after opening and consumed fairly briskly before it loses its edge. If a bartender, host or friend is showing signs of getting above themselves it can’t hurt to ask how long they’ve had their bottle for, when was it opened, etc with a quizzical, slightly disappointed air. If they reply that they’ve just opened it, murmur “How strange…”
To make your Americano a Negroni, switch the soda for gin, with equal parts of each ingredient, stir with ice and serve with a twist of orange peel, either leaving the ice in or straining according to preference. You can double up on the gin if you like; Bond enjoys a powerful drink.
The Bacardi (white) rum that Bond orders for Vesper—while he drinks an Americano—is more troubling. Thankfully, the infinitely suave Bond doesn’t add “Breezer”. Perhaps he should have ordered a Stock Antilles rum, a far finer blend, or even a Captain Morgan White. We think Bond may have slipped up here, but then his creator Ian Fleming did have a villa and estate in Jamaica, so he could be expected to know his rum. Perhaps, though, his order simply reflects 1950s views on women drinking and his own rather questionable attitudes; a nice light unchallenging rum for the lady…
Whisky on the rocks
It’s not clear what whisky he is drinking, but as it’s Bond, 1953 and “whisky” rather than “whiskey”, we might assume that it’s Scotch and not Irish, American or A N Other. It could well be the upmarket blend Haig and Haig. But then with Bond and whisk(e)y it’s hard to tell; he probably drinks more of it in the books than anything else, and his taste is promiscuous. Nor does he follow the rules as we see them now.
Drinking Scotch with ice isn’t altogether British and is now much frowned upon. The US has much more of an iced-drink culture, while bourbon and rye are traditionally more robust than mellifluous Scotch (especially single malt), and suffer less from the muting effect of ice; it’s how they’re very often drunk. For a good Scotch, we’d be more inclined to add a little water—single malts are often served with a small jug of it—and if we were showing off we might add specially chosen mineral water sparingly, using a teaspoon. Liquid water increases the volatility of whisky, opening out the flavours and (it is argued), benefitting the subtler single malts. Cooling it, however, reduces the volatility, easing the alcoholic burn, but at the same time dulling the flavour. This means that many Scotch drinkers think it’s a Bad Thing. What, then, to make of Bond’s order?
First, he was having a drink, not attending a formal tasting. In his time single malts weren’t as common as now and a gentleman might drink a lot of whisky—most likely an upmarket blend if not something humbler, served with soda or whatnot—without making a fuss of it. That’s not a bad thing, even if we enjoy a reverent single malt from time to time ourselves. Second, Bond had just escaped death by explosion; he probably wasn’t concerned about enhancing the whisky’s volatility. Reducing the burn would also allow him get a lot of strong drink inside quickly and painlessly, no bad thing in the circumstances.
The trickiest thing here is to find a whisky or whiskey that matches Bond’s meal of “pâté de foie gras and cold langouste” while treating his shock and tolerating ice. Something strong but slightly sweet would be best, the sweetness and the whisky sting enhancing and offsetting the rich pâté. For a single malt Scotch we’re plumping for a Dalwhinnie—the basic 15-year-old is prime value and has what’s needed—but as Casino Royale is in France we’re also thinking of a rare high-pedigree French whisky from Cognac: Brenne. Brenne is aged in old Cognac barrels and has the requisite power (40% vol) and refined sweetness; Bond could have it on the rocks with a twist of orange peel and eat his foie gras quite happily, we suspect, while recovering his spirits. If he chose to go for whiskey instead—and in the later novels he does from time to time—a classic like Blanton’s Kentucky bourbon would do nicely.
Bond’s Martini—the Vesper
Bond’s first Martini is in Casino Royale, and he also conceives of his trademark version, the Vesper. We might raise our eyebrows at the Gordon’s he asks for, but then we’re in the middle of a gin boom and perhaps it was the best gin available at the time. It was the go-to gin for Hemingway, and he was certainly a man who knew his booze. The vodka Bond asks for is one made with grain instead of potatoes, and he might be on to something here. A grain vodka that has been making a name for itself in the last decade or so is a Scottish one, Armadale. It’s a favourite of our modern day Hemingway, Jay-Z. But he is asking for this in a Martini, a drink that is full of botanicals. Of course the key to any good cocktail is to unlock the flavour of these botanicals by finding a way to either pair or complement them. Therefore, matching flavours will help. If he used the Polish vodka, Chopin, and went for the wheat one (they also make rye and potato vodkas), he would find some lemon curd and orange-juice citrus notes (according to drinkshacker.com). Both of these would certainly enhance his Martini.
Opting, then, to use Kina Lillet—an aperitif wine—rather than a cheap vermouth, as would have been customary at the time, certainly hints at his pedigree. Bond in this one simple switch precedes the craft cocktail trend by over half a century. Every hipster this side of the Moon will nod respectfully at the change, though possibly regretting the many fine obscure vermouths that might have been used instead. The major inconvenience here, though, is that Kina Lillet is no longer made. It was rebranded as Lillet Blanc, “fresher, fruitier and less bitter” according to Lillet. Hmm. Perhaps the best replacement comes from Cocchi, who also make the classic Torino vermouth we use in the Americano/Negroni: Aperitivo Cocchi Americano. It hits all the right notes and has that necessary asperity. If you want to use a more conventional vermouth, there’s the French connection to consider again—when in France and all that—we’d use Dolin Dry.
We say yes again to the slice of lemon peel, though perhaps Bond should have asked for a twist and had it expressed over the Martini.
Bond must have become used to the (then) inferior potato vodka, at that time it would have been full of oils that would’ve needed to be shaken to be dispersed; shaking, though unconventional and apt to cloud the Martini and add more water than stirring, would rid the drink of an oily note. Wheat vodka would be fine, hence his asking for it. The shaking with ice would also chill the drink quickly and thoroughly, reducing both Bond’s waiting time for his drink and the alcohol burn. Mixologists might disapprove, but Bond wasn’t a mixologist, God forbid, he was a drinker who knew what he wanted. Just don’t expect to be respected if you ask for your Martini to be shaken, not stirred at a cocktail bar.
Read our in-depth piece on the Martini here.
What’s in a brandy?
Brandy (brandewijn, “burnt wine”) is a spirit distilled from the fermented juice of fruit, usually grapes. It’s a broad church: Bond could be ordering anything from slivovitz to Cherry B. This being him and it being 1953 in France, however, he almost certainly means Cognac or Armagnac, probably the former. Either way, he can drink his brandy with pleasure and profit. Both are named after the areas of France they come from, and both are ancient and noble drinks.
Armagnac is the older but lesser-known brandy. It comes from Gascony, where production is still mostly in the hands of small producers, unlike in Cognac—you could compare the Armagnac/Cognac relationship to that between Burgundy and Bordeaux in wine, with the former being made up of small estates and the latter chateaux, one being awkward, characterful, a little unpredictable, and the other being smooth and reliably grand. With apologies for repeating some in-house clichés and half-truths about French wine. While Armagnac comes from south of Bordeaux—a more rustic area—Cognac comes from the Charente and Charente-Maritime départements to the north. One of the most important differences between the two is that Armagnac is usually single distilled, while Cognac is normally double distilled. (Single malt whisky—made from grain rather than fruit, of course—is usually double distilled, and can sometimes (like Irish whiskey) be triple distilled for extra smoothness.) This explains in part the relative suaveness of the Cognac, and the relative richness and burn of the Armagnac.
Armagnac is either vintage (i.e. made from grapes from a single year) or non-vintage, and in the latter case it can be designated by the age of the youngest wine in the blend (e.g. 10 year old, 10 ans d’âge) or by category: VS (very special, minimum two years in wood), VSOP (very special old pale, at least four years in wood), XO (extra old, more than six years) or Hors d’âge (10 years+ in wood). Cognac has similar categories, although the Hors d’âge (and Napoléon and extra) types only need to have aged six years in wood—with the exception of Napoléon this will become ten years from 2018. The VS is for drinking with mixers or in cocktails, while anything above VSOP should be had on its own.
Cognac or Armagnac for Bond? Bond’s ice in his whisky suggests that he likes to get his strong drink down with minimal burn, and this favours Cognac, elegant and smooth. But then Armagnac offers so much for the swaggering drinker; the little-known producer versus the international drinks conglomerate, the special 40-year-old bottle had for a fraction of the price of that Cognac … for anyone attempting Bondian drinking now with limited funds, it should probably be Armagnac, while at least one of us prefers it, by and large. Our recommendation for an Armagnac to appeal to veteran and novice palates alike is an aged Baron de Sigognac Bas Armagnac, anything from 10 ans d’âge up.
If you want to take your brandy drinking further, you’ll have to drink your way through the different areas within Armagnac and Cognac; they’re all slightly different. And for a really superior non-grape brandy try Calvados (apples) from Normandy. (Andy swears by Somerset apple cider brandy from across the channel, but is it sophisticated enough?)
Also look out for Owen Williams’s Bond articles for Empire film magazine—here’s “James Bond from page to screen” and “James Bond’s literary afterlife” to start with. Owen compiled the Bond Files for Alderman Lushington.
Andy Hamilton and Paul Fishman (Bristol, October 2015)
Andy had his first alcoholic drink at eight and has never looked back. He now works as a freelance drunkard and does many booze related things to earn a crust. These include taking people out into the woods and teaching them how to make booze from wild plants, writing about booze in his books, the bestselling Booze for Free, his in-depth treatise on beer, Brewing Britain, and more recently the book he is working on, Wild Booze and Hedgerow Cocktails. He often writes for the Telegraph and occasionally for the Guardian. He’s also been know to help various establishments design their own signature drinks. Andy is known as one of the politest people in the drinks industry, he never swears and is always convivial and never an incompressible drunk. Honest. And he really is the editor at large for Alderman Lushington.