The Vesper

Dish-vesper liquor illustration

You can’t make 007’s signature martini without Lillet

It's an esoteric French liqueur, and it makes a cameo in both the film and book versions of Casino Royale. For this reason alone you've likely already decided to adore or despise it. To the haters, I ask that you hear me out.

Admittedly, Lillet is a pretty weird drink: it's made from a blend of 85 percent white Bordeaux and 15 percent citrus liqueurs made from bitter oranges and grapefruit peel. It's also aged in oak barrels for a period of time before it is bottled. (There's red version of Lillet too, but it's only available in the United States.)

On its own, Lillet smells of an exotic combination of sweet orange, pink grapefruit and some other indescribable, perfumed essence. Lillet tastes sweet and feels like honey on your palate, but it finishes with a distinctive bitter edge like grapefruit pith. You certainly couldn't drink a lot of it in one shot, and you definitely need to serve it well-chilled. Still, Lillet's intriguing flavour will force you to drink a whole glass as you decide whether you like or hate it.

Which leads me back to James Bond, that icon of pop culture who is also reviled and loved in equal measures. Lillet was created in 1872 and, after heavy marketing, became very popular in France in the early 1900s, peaking in the 1920s. By the time James Bond made his debut in Ian Fleming's 1953 novel Casino Royale, Lillet had a place in any well-stocked bar.

Prior to the novel's release, Lillet was enjoyed almost exclusively as an aperitif—a drink sipped before dinner, usually served chilled over ice with a slice of lemon or lime. In Casino Royale, however, James Bond creates a martini he dubs the Vesper, made from three parts Gordon's gin, one part vodka and half a part Kina Lillet, shaken over ice and served with a thin slice of lemon peel. (The “Kina” in the name was dropped in the 1930s when the liqueur became known simply as Lillet; apparently no one told Bond.) Despite its fictional origins, the Vesper went on to enjoy underground fame, re-emerging in 21st century cocktail culture after the 2006 release of the film version of Casino Royale.

If there's one thing Bond's Vesper teaches us, it's that Lillet is best enjoyed in a mixed drink. Though it makes an intriguing aperitif, there's a reason it fell into obscurity: the taste is simply too bizarre for most, even in its modernized form. (Lillet's recipe was reformulated in the 1980s with the intention of making it sweeter and more appealing to modern palates.)

Lillet can be mixed with any clear liquor—vodka, gin, white rum, even silver tequila—with good results. Its flavours marry well with innumerable liqueurs, especially ones based around citrus-like fruit flavours such as Grand Marnier, Cointreau, Domaine de Canton and Campari. A spirit of adventure is always required when playing with any new liqueur, but you're going to end up with something alcoholic no matter what—what's the worst that could happen? V

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