SHE WANDERED OVER to the bar a little wobbly on too-high heels, her gold lamé skirt — handkerchief would be more accurate — shimmering in the dim light. But it wasn’t her outfit that begged for attention, it was her top. All she wore on top was a matching lamé vest, completely unbuttoned, with nothing underneath.
“Did you make this Vespa?” she asked slowly and carefully, “because you made it wrong.”
Two things stood out immediately. It wasn’t a Vespa; it was a Vesper. There’s also always more than one way to make a drink.
“We make our Vespers with Kina l’Avion d’Or,” I replied with clear enunciation.
“Vespas are made with Lillet,” she said after a pause. “Lillet Blanc, pronounced Blanc like ‘blank.’ I go to some very classy places, and they always use Lillet Blanc.”
Great, I thought — a lecture on class from a woman with no top. What next, a verbal dress down on manners from a guy with no pants?
With the release of “Skyfall,” the 23rd James Bond film coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the first 007 film, 1962’s “Dr. No,” we in the bar business can expect a requests for Vespers. Also “shaken not stirred” will be uttered far too regularly by men who are not James Bond and, apparently, lectures on class will be given by underdressed women nearly twice the age of any of the actresses who played Pussy Galore, Holly Goodhead or Plenty O’Toole.
James Bond’s original Vesper, from the book “Casino Royale” (1953) was made with Kina Lillet, vodka and gin. Kina Lillet, created in late 19th-century France, was an aromatized aperitif wine similar to vermouth. Its primary flavoring was from quinine, whose bitter taste most people know from tonic water. Extracted from the bark of the South American cinchona tree, also called the kina kina tree, these “tonics” came to be known as quinquinas.
Kina Lillet featured white wine from the Gironde region in southwestern France combined with fruit liqueurs and quinine. In the 1920s, a second brand called Lillet Dry was created, designed to be mixed with gin. The company reduced the amount of quinine and began reducing the prominence of Kina in the name until it disappeared from the name altogether around 1930 — ironic because Bond’s Vesper appears in the Bond novel two decades later.
By 1960, the company began producing Lillet Rouge at which point Lillet Dry became Lillet Blanc. In 1986, the company again reduced the quinine content in its Lillet Blanc, rendering the new product almost completely different from the original.
Many cocktail aficionados believe that the closest thing to Kina Lillet available today is Cocchi Americano, an aperitif wine produced on the Giulio Cocchi estate in Asti, Italy. This aperitivo is a fortified Moscato d’Asti wine steeped with cinchona bark, citrus peel and other botanicals.
Recently, Petaluma’s Tempus Fugit released Kina L’Avion d’Or, which it claims is based on a 19th-century recipe that blends wine from Italian Cortese grapes with cinchona bark, ginger, orange peel, sandalwood and wormwood (no surprise since the company also makes the wormwood liquor Absinthe). The result is a more viscous, more bitter product that purportedly is even more reminiscent of the original Kina Lillet.
All of which means that 50 years after the first Bond movie and nearly 60 years after the first Bond book, it’s possible to make a Vesper that most closely resembles the recipe Fleming wrote about.
I thought about explaining that to Miss Lamé, but I noticed the men at her table had left. And men being men, it meant that it took a special kind of woman to get left alone topless in a bar — and that kind of woman is probably not looking for input.