Ian Fleming died 50 years ago next month, but in 1953 he penned a novel that not only created a world-famous fictional character—a character that millions of men have since aspired to be—but also a cocktail and a specific way of ordering it that has remained ingrained in popular culture. James Bond and his Vesper martini may be infamous (click here for a story on that specific cocktail), but what if Fleming had never written that cocktail into his stories? What if he had never defined his iconic character’s preference for shaken martinis and British gin? If the slate were wiped clean and James Bond could drink anything, what would it be? We asked a handful of bartenders that exact question. Their answers cannot change literary history, but they may influence your decisions the next time you saunter up to the bar.
Jeff Dillon, a bartender at Bathtub Gin in New York, doesn’t stray too far from the classic gin martini, but he does suggest a cocktail that offers a subtle twist on that classic. “He’s James Bond, so I don’t think he’s drinking anything that’s not gin-centric,” Dillon says. “If it wasn’t a Vesper martini, he might like an Alaska cocktail; it’s a ballsier Vesper in a way.”
The Alaska is a mixture of gin, dry vermouth, and yellow Chartreuse, and it’s the Chartreuse, according to Dillon, that makes the difference. “It’s a little stronger and has an extra layer of something going on. It still says arctic cold and very dry, and gin driven, but it’s also herbaceous.”
John McCarthy, a fellow bartender at Bathtub Gin, also believes that Bond would stick to something gin focused. “James Bond knows his drinks and would drink different things depending on where he is. For Casino Royale, for example, he would have a Negroni. It’s such a classic, bitter, boozy European gin cocktail. It’s an old-world kind of cocktail. When he’s at the beach in the Bahamas—if we’re still saying that he’s drinking gin—I think he’d be drinking a gimlet on the rocks, just gin and lime juice with a touch of sugar.”
Unlike Dillon and McCarthy, Stefan Mases, assistant bar manager at the Skyview Bar in Dubai, believes that Bond would show his allegiance to his native soil in a slightly different way. “Because I believe James Bond to be a connoisseur of all the fine things in life, I would have pictured him with a cocktail made closer to home, such as the Rob Roy—a cocktail named after a Scottish folk hero, a little bit of a rebel, just like 007,” he says. “It’s identical to the Manhattan with one big difference: It is made with Scotch whisky.”
Following that logic, Rene Hidalgo, bar manager at Lantern’s Keep in New York, envisions Bond sipping on a Bobby Burns, a Manhattan-esque libation composed of scotch, sweet vermouth, Bénédictine, and Angostura bitters. “As opposed to a Vesper martini, which is clear and crisp and very straightforward, the Bobby Burns has a lot of depth to it,” Hidalgo says. “It’s much more luscious of a drink; it’s a little sweeter and a lot more complex. There’s this whole allure behind it that’s enticing and mysterious, and it lends itself to the image of James Bond as the picture of cool. He’s a man of mystery and they seem to make sense together.”
Kyle Ford, founder of Ford Mixology Lab in New York, leveraged his knowledge of vintage cocktails and referenced the pages of the Savoy Cocktail Book, which was published in 1930, to come up with what he believes is an ideal drink for 007—the Queen Elizabeth. “It’s nothing more than two parts dry gin, one part Cointreau, one part lemon juice, and a dash of absinthe,” he explains, “but it’s quite appropriate, given that Mr. Bond is on Her Majesty’s secret service. The cocktail is acerbic like his British wit and is rounded out by a touch of worldly complexity. I can picture him standing at the American Bar in London and ordering one . . . or a few of them.”
For Jeff Josenhans, a bartender and sommelier at the US Grant in San Diego, such a hypothetical question was easy to answer—green Chartreuse served with one good ice cube. And the ice cube, Josenhans says, is very important. “He ordered the dry martini always shaken not stirred,” he says, “and people understood that as the norm, but it’s actually a deviation from the way it should be made. By ordering it with one ice cube, you’re adding a little twist, because typically it’s served neat.
“It’s a sophisticated beverage,” he continues. “There are a lot of layers to it, there’s a lot of mystery to it. For decades, people have tried to figure out what’s in green Chartreuse, but nobody has been able to unlock what’s in it. It’s as secretive as James Bond himself.”