Trying to untangle the murky origins of the clearest cocktail

The Martini has been around since the mid-to-late 1800s. Its life has spanned the Industrial Revolution, two world wars, Prohibition, the Great Depression, the Summer of Love, disco, punk, and Hammer Pants. It has been in style, out of fashion, and subject to the peculiar and not always trustworthy whims of the American drinker. Its ingredients have been altered over the decades to compensate here for a shortage of one ingredient, there for an overabundance of another. Like many of the most famous cocktails, the Martini is at its foundation and most widely accepted recipe, exceptionally simple: gin and vermouth, with an olive or twist of lemon peel for garnish. Stirred. Nothing more. And yet as simple as that recipe is, few cocktails have as many variations and corruptions as the Martini. Chocotinis, Appletinis, Bacontinis.

Even restricting oneself to the most basic and stringent definition of a Martini (gin and vermouth) brokers no respite from debate, as imbibers will argue about the amount of vermouth (three-quarters of an ounce? half an ounce? a wash? have the bartender inhale vermouth vapor and whisper the word “vermouth” into the glass?) and the type (dry or sweet). There isn’t even total agreement on the type of gin to use. London dry is most common — because for decades, that’s all we had in the US – but earlier recipes called for Old Tom gin. With so much time and so much alteration under its belt, the idea of pedantry in regards to the Martini seems a little misplaced, but then most pedantry does. And yet, here we are, with a cocktail that inspires sometimes comically vicious debate. At the center of the debate, often times, is James Bond’s beloved shaken vodka Martini and the Vesper – considered by more than a few to be as much a perversion of the Martini as the peanut butter Martini.

After its appearance in the James Bond movies, the Martini became synonymous with classic cool, a symbol of mid-century elegance. Before too long, the shape of a Martini glass (which was designed to look the way it does either because the shape helps bring out the bouquet of the gin while keeping the ingredients from separating, or because the wide opening made it easy during Prohibition to dump the drink quickly if the police came a-raiding) became the international symbol for “alcohol served here,” and neon lights shaped like the glasses became common sights outside cocktail bars. When you tally everything up at the end of the day, there are drinks Bond consumes with greater frequency, but none of them have attained the recognizable status of the Martini. The two are intrinsically linked. Just about every novice drinker makes the social faux pas of ordering their first Martini by saying, “a vodka Martini, shaken not stirred,” while thinking they’re maybe the first (or, at worst, the third) person to order a Martini that way. More committed Bond aficionados will hit the bartender with the full set of instructions from Casino Royale, and more than a few bartenders will know what you mean when you simply ask for a Vesper.

Saying Our Vespers

Amazingly, until 2006, no screen Bond had ever consumed a Vesper. Other than the farcical 1967 send-up of Casino Royale, there had never been a screen Vesper Lynd to inspire its creation. At the time Fleming wrote Casino Royale, there was no big bidding war for the rights to make it into a film. The first people to give Fleming a go were American television producers, who purchased the rights to Casino Royale and filmed it in 1954 as a live television drama for the series Climax! In that early adaptation, British agent James Bond became American agent Jimmy Bond, played by Barry Nelson. But don’t worry, England. American agent Felix Leiter became British secret agent Clarence Leiter (I guess Felix wasn’t British enough), played by Michael Pate. Poor Vesper Lynd got combined with French intelligence officer Rene Mathis and became Valerie Mathis (Linda Christian). In this version, Bond orders only one drink: a Scotch and water, which he never actually consumes. He and Le Chiffre (Peter Lorre) both seem far more excited by cold, straight water. “Le Chiffre…can I have some water?” Bond inquires, to which Le Chiffre responds enthusiastically, “Oh yes, with pleasure. Basil, give him all the water he wants. Get me some water, too.”

The film rights to Casino Royale were sold again in 1955 for $6,000 to an actor-director named Gregory Ratoff. However, he never got around to making the movie. After Ratoff’s death in 1960 the rights ended up with American producer Charles K. Feldman. Feldman too was slow to move on the film. By the time he was ready to go into production, the Bond books were hits and Eon Productions, a partnership between British producer Albert “Cubby” Broccoli and American producer Harry Saltzman, had sewn up the rights to all other current and future James Bond novels. Feldman tried to sell Casino Royale to Eon, but at the time they weren’t interested. Compared to novels like Dr. No and From Russia with Love,Casino Royale is slow and a bit weepy. They’d have to put way too much time into adapting it into something filmable. Feldman decided that rather than try to produce a competing James Bond film, he would simply make Casino Royale a farce. And despite the end product of that effort containing no fewer than seven James Bonds and at least one Vesper Lynd, not a single character drinks a Vesper. And so it would remain until the 21st century.

By the closing credits of Die Another Day, Bond enthusiasts and casual filmgoers alike were exhausted by the increasingly outlandish degree of bloat that had crept into the series. In 2002, the films took a little time off and re-evaluated what it was to be James Bond in a post Bourne Identity world. In that time, things changed dramatically in the drinking world. There was a resurgence in interest in cocktails from the dusty old archives of drinking history. The internet suddenly made sharing information and enthusiasm much easier. The occasional bartender here or there interested in the drinking culture of the 1950s, the 1920s, and earlier and tired of making yet another vodka and soda suddenly found him or herself able to communicate with other like-minded bartenders and historians. From colonial punches to Prohibition classics to sleek mid-century dazzlers, the craft cocktail boom was born.

Although they’d not been interested in it in the 1960s, Eon became interested during the 1990s in Casino Royale. But the current rights holder, Sony, wasn’t interested in selling. In 1999, Eon’s struggle to reacquire the rights to Casino Royale was finally settled. After nearly half a century of wandering the desert, the very first James Bond novel could finally come home — as could the first Bond girl and the drink named in her honor. 007 finally got to order a Vesper onscreen. The official recipe (served in a champagne goblet rather than a Martini glass), to quote James Bond in Fleming’s original novel (which Daniel Craig sticks to):

“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?”

While fans of the Bond books were happy to see the Vesper, regardless of whether or not Martini purists consider it controversial, assume its rightful place in the canon of Bond films, there were still a couple problems, all of which arise from the fact that over fifty years had passed since Fleming first committed the recipe to page. In that time, the proof of Gordon’s gin had dropped. And Kina Lillet hadn’t been available for decades. Even in the time Fleming was writing Casino Royale, the company had dropped the “Kina” (which referred to quinine which was added to the spirit) and was simply known as Lillet. Although Lillet still exists, the recipe was changed in 2006, removing the quinine entirely. Which means if you order a Vesper with the exact specifications issued by Bond, you will get a different cocktail than he got. The ship can be righted somewhat by replacing Gordon’s with Gordon’s Export (higher proof) or another common London Dry gin, such as Tanqueray. As for the Lillet, you can try using modern Lillet Blanc with a dash or two of Angostura Bitters, or Cocchi Aperitivo Americano, which has some quinine in it.

However, not getting the same drink as James Bond might be a good idea. Kingsley Amis, a storied bon vivantand the man first hired to continue the James Bond book series after the death of Ian Fleming (he wrote 1968’sColonel Sun, in which much ouzo is consumed), also wrote a nonfiction literary study of Bond, 1965’s The James Bond Dossier. Amis claims that Fleming simply got his Lillets confused. Kina Lillet would have been far too bitter an ingredient, and given that the Vesper is a variation of the Martini, Fleming probably meant Lillet vermouth. And while we assume the reason Bond never orders the cocktail again is because of the betrayal he suffers at Vesper’s hands, perhaps the reality is more mundane; maybe he took that first sip and realized he’d made a terrible mistake. Fleming himself lends credence to the assertion that the Vesper was concocted under mistaken assumptions. In a letter to the Manchester Guardian, Fleming issued a mea culpa regarding the Vesper: “I proceeded to invent a cocktail for Bond, which I sampled several months later and found unpalatable.”

California Cocktail Courts

For such a simple drink there is a tremendous amount of debate surrounding the Martini, including where it was invented, what you should put in it, and how the ingredients are mixed. Insisting on this way or that way being the proper way, or the only real way, to make a Martini can take on the pseudo-religious fervor of a Sean Connery versus Roger Moore debate. How did we come to such a contentious state? How can such a simple drink cause so much controversy? Will knowing the history of the Martini help us understand why it inspires so much impassioned debate? No, it won’t, because the cocktail’s history is every bit as contentious as how much vermouth one should use, and as unclear and murky as an overly dirty Martini.

Many of the world’s best-known cocktails have a clearly defined pedigree, including when, where, and by whom they were created. That’s not the case with the Martini. The first published record of the drink was in bartender Jerry Thomas’ guide, The Bar-Tender’s Guide (also known as How to Mix Drinks or: The Bon-Vivant’s Companion), first published in 1862 but revised and reprinted in 1887. The Bar-Tender’s Guide was one of the first published collection of cocktail recipes (rather than a compendium of drinks Thomas himself created). But its appearance in the book often causes the creation of the Martini to be attributed to Thomas, and to the bar at which he was employed at the time, the Occidental Hotel in San Francisco. Indeed the city of San Francisco is quite adamant that it was the birthplace of the Martini. Others, however, are not so acquiescent to San Francisco’s claim.

Across the Bay, about forty miles northeast of San Francisco, is the town of Martinez, which also lays claim to being the birthplace of the Martini. As they tell it, a miner who had just struck gold entered a local watering hole and asked the bartender to make him a drink so that he might celebrate his bonnie luck. The bartender basically threw together what he had at hand — fortified wine (vermouth) and gin. The drink was a hit with the newly wealthy miner, who referred to the drink by the name of the town — Martinez — at least until such time that he was so drunk he slurred the name into something vaguely resembling “Martini.” The town of Martinez even uses San Francisco’s own claim against it. Jerry Thomas’ bar guide refers to the drink as a “Martinez.” Even he knew it came from the town of Martinez, right? Ah, but not so fast!

As San Francisco tells the legend, the miner walked into the Occidental and ordered the drink, and when asked by Jerry where he was headed next, the miner said he was going to return to Martinez. So Jerry named the drink in honor of the man’s next stop. And to San Francisco’s credit, they at least have a name and a place associated with the event. There is no name associated with either the bar or the bartender who allegedly invented the drink in Martinez, though a Martinez mayor, Rob Schroder, said in a 2013 interview with Esquire that the bar was owned by a man named Julio Richelieu – the name of a Bond villain if ever I heard one.

The feud between Martinez and San Francisco became so absurd that San Francisco convened a special hearing to settle the question once and for all. The Court of Historical Review eventually determined that the Martini was indeed invented in San Francisco. Which might have settled things but for the small detail that the Court of Historical Review was in San Francisco. Citing a conflict of interest, and claiming the judge had sampled too much evidence, Martinez appealed the decision. The appeal, which took place in a court in Martinez, shockingly overturned the San Francisco decision and determined that the Martini was indeed invented in Martinez. San Francisco wasn’t the only party to roll their eyes at the “court decision.” Over in Italy, of all places, the company Martini & Rossi was claiming that they, or at least some Italian bartender, had invented the drink, and that the name “Martini” derived from the trend of asking for a cocktail by the name of the primary ingredient. Thus, a cocktail based on Martini Vermouth would simply be ordered by asking for “a Martini.” Hell, it’s as good a claim as any.

The Martinez

  • 1 dash of Boker’s bitters
  • 2 dashes of Maraschino
  • 1 pony of Old Tom gin
  • 1 wine glass of Vermouth
  • 2 small lumps of ice
  • Shake up thoroughly, and strain into a large cocktail glass. Put a quarter of a slice of lemon in the glass and serve. If the guest prefers it very sweet add two dashes of gum syrup.

Jerry’s recipe calls for Old Tom gin. Old Tom is not a brand of gin, but a style, a little sweeter than London Dry. As legend has it (you’ll notice that a lot of what passes for fact in booze history begins with the qualifier “legend has it”), Old Tom gin got its name from the “old tom”cat-shaped signs that hung above many public houses in 18th-century England. The stories get more elaborate when they start to claim that, because gin was against the law at the time, enterprising pub owners would distill their own gin, which would then be pumped through a hose and out of the cat, where waiting gin fans could sneak a nip since nothing is less conspicuous than sucking a shot of gin out of a wooden cat sign. Old Tom gin eventually fell out of style until the craft cocktail and distilling renaissance of the 21st century sent young distillers digging through old records and recipes so they might recreate a lost spirit. Brands like Ransom and Hayman’s have done remarkable work bringing this forgotten spirit back from the dead, though without the need to suck it out of a cat’s butt.

From Martinez to Martini

It is unlikely, despite kangaroo cocktail courts (incidentally, the original name for a vodka Martini was the “kangaroo cocktail”) and marketing materials, that the origin of the Martini will ever be properly determined. Jerry Thomas passed away in 1885, blissfully unaware that the future would hold so much cocktail controversy. The Occidental was destroyed in an earthquake in 1905. With so much about the Martini’s genesis existing purely in the realm of hearsay and “legend has it,” modern drinkers are better off hearing the stories, filing them away, and simply enjoying the drink.

So how did the Martini of Jerry Thomas’ time become the clear, minimalist gin and vermouth concoction that became synonymous with James Bond, Don Draper, and mid-century cocktail culture as a whole? A number of factors contributed to the Martinez becoming the Martini. Part of it was simply changing tastes. Old Tom gin was replaced by the London Dry style — your Bombay Sapphire, Tanqueray, Beefeater, or Gordon’s. Similarly, affinity for sweet vermouth was replaced around 1900 with a preference for dry vermouth. It’s around this time that New York City somewhat belatedly gets in on the “who created the Martini” debate. This particular legend comes to us courtesy of the New Yorkermagazine, in an article that contains little in the way of supporting evidence. In 1911, the head bartender at the popular Knickerbocker Hotel in New York was a gentleman named Martini di Arma di Taggia. With London Dry style gin becoming more and more popular, it was purportedly Martini who mixed the first dry Martini and lent his first name to the cocktail. It’s also been claimed that the drink was either invented for or soon became the favorite of captain of industry John D. Rockefeller. This claim, at least, can be branded as exceptionally dubious, given that Rockefeller was a well-known teetotaler. Whatever the case, the Knickerbocker story gets us one step closer to the modern Martini.

The Knickerbocker Martini

  • 1.5 oz London Dry Gin
  • 1.5 oz Dry Vermouth
  • 2 dashes Orange Bitters
  • Combine the ingredients in a mixing glass filled with cracked ice. Stir and strain into a chilled glass. Garnish with a twist of lemon peel.

Gin increased dramatically in popularity (the Martinez, if you look at the recipe, was primarily a vermouth cocktail) during Prohibition. Unlike a good whiskey, gin didn’t need to be aged, so it could be produced very quickly, in large quantities, for fairly cheaply. And as gin’s stock rose, the Martini transformed into a gin cocktail. When Prohibition ended, the gin Martini more or less as we know it today emerged as the preeminent star of the cocktail world, especially now that bathtub gin could be replaced with quality, professionally made gin. Exactly when and where the olive came into the mix is…well, you can probably guess by now that nobody knows for sure, but there are some legends.

Shaken, Not Stirred

Ordering a Martini can be needlessly complicated. Granted, you can walk into pretty much any cocktail bar and just order a damn Martini, and the bartender will nod and make you a drink (etiquette suggestion: do not walk up to a bartender and literally order “a damn Martini” unless you are Lee Marvin). But the drink that bartender makes for you — well, it could contain any number of ingredients in any number of combinations. Gin and vermouth, right? Some people are even iffy on the olive (I am; I hate olives). And what kind of vermouth? How much? Ah, you want vodka, not gin? Oh, you’re James Bond and you want vodka and gin? Oh, you want a Martini, but you want it made with Disaronno? Come on! The line has to be drawn somewhere. Straight up? Straight up with a twist? Perfect, extra dry, dirty, down? It’s ridiculous, but if you want to dig into the details…

A Basic Martini – the gold standard, no screwing around – uses gin and dry vermouth in a 2:1 ratio, stirred over ice, then strained into a tall stemmed glass containing no ice (“up”) and garnished with either a twist (“up with a twist”) of lemon or olives. A Perfect Martini splits the vermouth 50/50 between dry and sweet. An Extra Dry Martini reduces the amount of vermouth by half. A Dirty Martini adds brine from the olives into the mix. A Martini served down is served in a tumbler or rocks glass (that’s how they make them at one of Ernest Hemingway’s favorite bars, Harry’s New York Bar in Paris). If you want cocktail onions instead of a twist or olives, you can do that; ask for a Gibson.

Now…do you shake it or stir it? Ah, there’s a question.

In an episode of the television show The West Wing, President Josiah “Martin Sheen” Bartlet said “Shaken, not stirred, will get you cold water with a dash of gin and dry vermouth. The reason you stir it with a special spoon is so not to chip the ice. James [Bond] is ordering a weak martini and being snooty about it.” But then, Bartlett also once said, “To be called bourbon it has to come from Kentucky, otherwise it’s called sour mash,” so the guy’s know-it-all game is substantially worse than Bond’s. But why shaken? Ian Fleming (who, as befits all great storytellers, is not always the most reliable source when it comes to his own life), has his own story about how he, and thus James Bond, came to prefer his Martinis shaken. As the story goes (different than “legend has it”), Fleming was in Berlin after the end of World War II, working as a correspondent for Kemsley Newspapers, which allowed him to continue to indulge his taste for travel and adventure. While there, he encountered a bartender by the name of Hans Schroder, who shook the Martinis. Fleming adored them.

By the end of the Fleming era, Bond had still shown no preference for vodka or gin martinis, and except on occasion, he doesn’t seem to mind whether they are shaken or stirred. The first utterance of “A Martini. Shaken, not stirred” comes in 1956’s Diamonds Are Forever, but it is the third person narrator who says it, not Bond himself. In 1958’s Dr. No, 007’s diabolical captor offers Bond a Martini, “shaken and not stirred.” It wasn’t until the movies that Bond’s preference for shaken (and vodka) was entered into the public consciousness, to be forever repeated by corny barflies doing their worst slightly slurred Sean Connery impersonation. However, even Connery doesn’t utter that immortal line until the third of the films, Goldfinger.

Bond wasn’t the first cinematic drinking icon to prefer his Martinis shaken. Before Bond became synonymous with cocktails and killing, the world’s premiere drinking icons were husband and wife sleuths Nick and Nora Charles. Although created in 1934 by American writer Dashiell Hammett in his book The Thin Man, the definitive version of the characters (like James Bond) were their cinematic personifications: William Powell and Myrna Loy. Before the Hays Office came down on the series and switched out Nick’s booze in favor of milk or non-alcoholic cider and their glamorous partying and nightclubbing in favor of raising a child, Nick and Nora were the picture of Jazz Age glamor and wit, sipping cocktails, dancing, and solving the occasional murder. One Martini recipe even bore the moniker “The Nick and Nora,” and there’s a piece of glasswear, the coupe glass, that is commonly known simply as “the Nick and Nora glass.”

Nick & Nora Martini

  • 2.5 oz/74 mL London Dry Gin
  • .5 oz/15 mL Dry vermouth
  • 1 dash Orange bitters
  • Combine the ingredients in a mixing glass and fill with ice. Stir and strain into a Nick and Nora glass.

Although most recipes for a Nick and Nora Martini specify mixing the drink, The Thin Man is one of the first appearances of the Martini specifically “shaken, not stirred.” From the mouth of Nick Charles (William Powell) himself:

“The important thing is the rhythm. Always have rhythm in your shaking. Now a Manhattan you shake to fox-trot time. A Bronx to two-step time. A dry Martini you always shake to waltz time.”

Nick Charles wasn’t alone in prescribing shaking for the Martini. Harry Craddock’s seminal 1930 bartenders’ guide The Savoy Cocktail Book instructs drink makers to shake Martinis (but does not specify to which beat). So why exactly is it that so many Martini enthusiasts blanche at the idea of a shaken Martini, or insist that a shaken Martini can be a delicious drink, but it’s not a Martini; it’s a Bradford? The most common reason you’ll hear is that shaking “bruises” the gin, which means the agitation causes it to become overly bitter. Another complaint is that the agitation of shaking the cocktail causes the ice to chip, diluting the gin, causing the drink to go slightly cloudy, and changing its flavor. You will also hear that shaking over-aerates the drink, that traditionally cocktails that are all spirit, as is the case with a Martini, should be stirred, while cocktails with a juice mixer should be shaken. The debate has gone to such lengths that the Department of Biochemistry at the University of Western Ontario in Canada conducted a study to determine the effect of shaking versus stirring on a Martini, ostensibly because it had recently been put forth in another study that moderate drinking appeared to reduce the risk of cataracts, cardiovascular disease, and stroke. It turned out that shaking a Martini produced a drink with slightly more antioxidants than stirring it. Unfortunately, the biochemists failed to address which one tasted better.

Incidentally, you’ll notice in his quote that Nick Charles mentions a cocktail called The Bronx. While the Manhattan is one of the best-known cocktails even today, its New York borough brethren The Brooklyn and The Bronx have been largely forgotten. The Bronx is a close relative of the Nick and Nora Martini, with the only difference being that instead of orange bitters it uses the juice from a fresh squeezed orange and it doesn’t choose between sweet or dry vermouth; it uses both.

The Bronx

  • 1.5 oz/44 mL London Dry gin
  • 3/4 oz/22 mL Dry vermouth
  • 3/4 oz/22 mL Sweet vermouth
  • Juice of 1/4 orange squeezed into shaker
  • Combine all ingredients and shake, then strain into a cocktail glass and garnish with an orange wheel. If you add 2 dashes of Angostura Bitters, the drink becomes The Income Tax cocktail.

Where The Bronx is very close to a Martini, a Brooklyn is much closer to a Manhattan:

The Brooklyn

  • 2 oz/60 mL Rye or other whiskey
  • 1 oz/30 mL Dry vermouth
  • 1/4 oz/7 mL Maraschino liqueur
  • 1/4 oz/7mL Amer Picon (if you can find some) 
  • Combine ingredients with ice and stir until well-chilled. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass and garnish with a cherry (optional).

As for the Queens and the Staten Island, well, yes, they exist, too but are far enough afield from a Martini or Martinez that we’ll leave them be for now.

In the end, we come to that most common of conclusions: you order the cocktail the way you want it made. If someone turns their nose up at you for wanting it shaken, not stirred, you can rest assured that James Bond, Nick Charles, and Harry Craddock have your back. I’d take them over that West Wing President any day. Now as for Bond’s preference for vodka instead of gin…

Russian Revolution

There are theories as to why the cinematic James Bond preferred vodka instead of the more traditional gin, aside from him simply being an iconoclast. Chief among them is that Smirnoff was a sponsor of the films and leaned on producers to make sure their product was featured prominently. And indeed it is pretty front and center in Dr. No. There two really famous stills from that film. The first is Ursula Andress on the beach in her white bikini. No vodka in that scene. The second is of Bond pouring himself a drink from what the camera makes sure you know is a Smirnoff bottle. Smirnoff remained a high profile partner of the films until Finlandia usurped them during the Brosnan era, but the notion that the vodka Martini came to be because of some behind the scenes deal doesn’t hold water (or vodka, for that matter). For starters, the vodka Martini made appearances in the books predating the movies. People were drinking them before Sean Connery passed the time between killings by showing the camera a Smirnoff bottle. Vodka companies were already making huge advertising pushes in the United States, and selling mid-century America vodka as a cooler ingredient than gin in a Martini was part of the package. James Bond certainly helped, but Dr. No was part of an extended strategy rather than the whole game. It’s likely Bond would have ended up drinking a vodka Martini sooner or later regardless of whether or not Smirnoff slipped him an envelope full of used, non-sequential hundred dollar bills. But getting to that point took some work.

When Ian Fleming started publishing Bond novels, vodka was persona non grata in the West. The Cold War had its first flare-up in 1950 with the outbreak of the Korean War. The same year it ended,Casino Royale was published. England and the Soviet Union may have been uncomfortable allies during World War II, but the subsequent decade put a chill on the working relationship. Then came the Cuban Revolution, the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion by the United States, and the Berlin Wall. In 1962, the world sat on edge during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The first James Bond movie, Dr. No, was also released that year. Point being, things between England, the US, and the Soviet Union were not exactly cozy. It was a very odd combination to have a blockbuster movie series about a suave British secret agent who swilled endless amounts of Russian vodka while matching wits against those self-same Russians (at least in the books, where Bond spends a lot of time fighting agents from Spetsyalnye Metody Razoblacheniya Shpyonov, also known as Smert Shpionam, or simply SMERSH). Most of the Western world, like Bond’s boss M, considered vodka dreadful communist swill, certainly nowhere near as respectable and sophisticated as good ol’ Scottish whisky. English gin, or American bourbon. Or even wine, as long as it was claret. And yet, the moment that iconic shot of Sean Connery as James Bond pouring from a bottle of Smirnoff vodka hit movie screens, the once запрещенный spirit vodka was suddenly in vogue, Cold War be damned.

Even more audacious, it quickly became an alternative to good ol’ English gin in that most iconic of cocktails, the Martini. In the Bond novels, the Martini proper makes its first appearance in the second of the books, Live and Let Die. In the opening of the book, while Bond is relaxing in his room at the St. Regis Hotel in Manhattan, he is visited by his friend Felix Leiter, who mixes up a couple regular old gin Martinis. Later, when the two agents are at the hotel’s King Cole Bar, Leiter again orders Martinis for he and Bond, and once again they are gin Martinis (House of Lords gin, to be precise, with Martini & Rossi vermouth). Unlike the Knickerbocker, the St. Regis is still in existence, on 5th Avenue at 55th Street. Designed in the beaux arts style that was prevalent at the time, and standing eighteen stories tall, The St. Regis was the tallest hotel in New York when it was completed in 1904. Its owner was a member of New York’s premiere old money family, John Jacob Astor IV, who perished aboard the Titanic in 1912.

The hotel passed to his son, Vincent, who soon sold it to a man by the name of Benjamin Duke. In 1932 Duke expanded the hotel, adding the King Cole Bar (anticipating the end of Prohibition). The bar took its name from a mural of King Cole that hung behind the counter. The mural was not a St. Regis original. It had previously hung in another bar. That bar, as fate had it, was the one at the Knickerbocker Hotel. Although the hotel, now the St. Regis-Sheraton, changed ownership multiple times and endured many renovations and restorations, the King Cole Bar is still there, waiting for savvy secret agents to slip in and have a Martini — although the King Cole is better known for the drink that was invented there: the Red Snapper.

The Red Snapper

  • 1 oz/30 mL Belvedere vodka
  • 2 oz/60mL Tomato juice
  • 1 dash Lemon juice
  • 2 dashes Salt
  • 2 dashes Black pepper
  • 2 dashes Cayenne pepper
  • 3 dashes Worcestershire sauce
  • Shake all ingredients with ice and strain into a Collins glass. Garnish with a salt and pepper rim and half a stalk of celery. Serve with a straw.

If the Red Snapper sounds familiar, it’s because it came from the same man who invented the Bloody Mary. Fernand Petiot was a Parisian bartender plying his trade at the famous Harry’s New York Bar, where he created the Bloody Mary. During the Second World War, Petiot moved to New York, where he settled into a position at the King Cole and fully expected to put his famous Bloody Mary on the menu. The hotel’s owners did not care for the name, however. Too graphic, they thought, and simply too déclassé for the King Cole’s upscale patrons. What would that have made of a Sex on the Beach? Or for that matter, what would they have made of the juvenile sexual connotations that would later become associated with the cocktail’s new name, the Red Snapper? Or the bawdy secret contained in the iconic painting of King Cole from which the bar derived its entire identity (which was praised once by none less than Salvador Dali)?

It is not until the end of Live and Let Die, when Bond is luxuriating with his female conquest of the novel, Solitaire, that the iconically Bondian shaken vodka Martini drink makes its first appearance. “I hope I’ve made it right,” Solitaire remarks as she hands Bond the drink. “Six to one sounds terribly strong. I’ve never had vodka Martinis before.” But Fleming presumably had. He spent a considerable amount of time in Moscow, first as a reporter for the Reuters News Agency in 1933, covering the trial of six British engineers accused of espionage. The trial was a sham using confessions from tortured prisoners (who would later recant on their confessions, then go back to sticking by them after some additional time in the hands of Soviet secret police). In the end two of the engineers received light sentences; one was acquitted entirely; and two were expelled from the Soviet Union. The leniency in punishments in what was supposed to be an open-and-shut espionage trial for the USSR was attributed by many to the coverage of Fleming, whose diligent accounts of the trial caused international uproar at the bald-faced corruption of the Soviet justice system.

Years later, Fleming found himself in Moscow again, although this time it was only his cover that had him as a reporter. This return, in 1939, was actually at the behest of Great Britain’s Foreign Office, which wanted to take advantage of Fleming’s easy social demeanor and proficiency in multiple languages. It was while serving in this capacity that he first came to the attention of Rear Admiral John Godfrey, the man who would recruit Fleming for Naval Intelligence. It’s also when Fleming had his first drink of vodka. It’s likely, given the prevalence of vodka in the Soviet Union, that Fleming had his fair share of Martinis that substituted vodka for gin. The two spirits are about as similar as they are dissimilar (both are clear and distilled, but vodka does not have any of the juniper and botanical flavor of gin), but as pre-war vodka would have been the burlier of the two spirits, it’s far better suited for being shaken in a cocktail.

Once Bond put the final seal of approval on the vodka Martini, it became the Martini. The tables turned, and where once you had to specify a vodka Martini if that was your druthers, you now had to specifically request a gin Martini if that was what you had in mind. Ironically however, as vodka’s stock continued to rise, the Martini did not come along for the ride. By the end of the 1960s, drinks like the Martini were regarded as old fashioned by the emerging youth counter-culture. And though the 1970s saw a return of cocktail culture, it was an extremely different scene than it had been before the Summer of Love. Vodka was the superstar of the next two decades, but as a largely flavorless ingredient in fruit juice cocktails like the Harvey Wallbanger. Roger Moore’s James Bond expressly avoided Martinis of any type (to differentiate him from Sean Connery) and preferred Champagne. The shaken vodka Martini resurfaced during the Pierce Brosnan run. And finally, in the 2000s, the proper gin Martini – and the Martinez, as a matter of fact – enjoyed a comeback, and the gin Martini reclaimed the name “Martini.” Vodka, of course, remains extremely popular, mostly in flavored form and in fruit-flavored takes on the Martini. Say what you will about both the Roger Moore and Timothy Dalton tenures as Bond during these dark decades of cloying concoctions; at least both of them had the good sense to never, ever walk up to the bartender and ask for a Harvey Wallbanger…shaken, not stirred.

This article was originally written in for Alcohol Professor and has been reprinted here with permission.

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