The history of just about any spirit seems to follow a distinct pattern. A date for its creation is established, then half a dozen or more previous examples of the spirit follow in quick succession, making the original date more or less meaningless. This is because no one “invents” gin. Or whiskey. Or any of these things. The process of inventing gin is a long process of one type of spirit slowly evolving into another related spirit as tastes and supply changes and as distilling technology changes. Spirits aren’t invented. They evolve. So when something states that gin was invented in the middle of the 17th century by a Dutch physician named Franciscus Sylvius, what they’re really saying is that’s the year the history of gin become much easier to research than it had been in the past. Because even a cursory search will turn up gin, or at least its root form — genever — as far back as the 1500s, and you can bet that by the time something was written about, it had already been around for a good long while. Most of what we know about gin today involves England, but just about all history places the rise of gin in that nebulous region Americans know as, “Holland or The Netherlands or Belgium or something about the Flemish — where the hell is Flemland?”
It was during the great mid-century cocktail revival that young Ian Fleming came into his own as the gadabout and Bond vivant we know him as. And it’s likely that, as a man heavily influenced not just by British adventure writers like John Buchan, but also American detective novel writers like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, creator of the Philip Marlowe series and one of Fleming’s literary icons (Fleming even interviewed him for the BBC in 1958; the interview is the only known recording of Chandler’s voice, which the BBC radio producers described as “”slurred with whisky”), their drinking habits and those of their characters would have rubbed off on Commander Fleming. In the 2013 novel The Ian Fleming Files: Operation Parsifal by Damian Stevenson, a based-on-real-events novel about Fleming himself having wartime adventures that would inspire the adventures of James Bond, Fleming meets with his aging mentor Alfred Dillwyn “Dilly” Knox, who takes Fleming to The Eight Belles Pub.
The famous Savoy Hotel is first mentioned in the James Bond canon in Fleming’s 1956 novel Diamonds are Forever, when M reveals to 007 that one of his targets, a diamond importer by the name of Rufus B. Saye, lives at the Savoy. Bond himself, of course, never needs to stay at the Savoy; he lives in London, after all, and no hotel maid service, no matter how distinguished could compete with the services of Bond’s own attendant, May, his “Scottish treasure.” For Ian Fleming himself, however, and for many of Great Britain’s intelligence workers, The Savoy was one of the most important spots in all of London during World War II. Not just because of it’s historic and highly regarded bar; but also because it had its own power supply, which meant that even during power outages caused by German bombing, the Savoy could continue to operate.
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 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 his opinion on drinks and drink history is about as dependable as Ian Fleming’s opinion on healthy eating and drinking.
The first drink James Bond has in Risico, while meeting with his contact Kristatos, is a Negroni. Risico prominently features one more cocktail, if in a somewhat dismissive fashion. Kristatos identifies himself to Bond at the Hotel Excelsior’s bar with a signal: an Alexander, which amuses 007.
“Bond had been told to look for a man with a heavy mustache who would be by himself drinking an Alexandra. Bond had been amused by the secret recognition signal. The creamy, feminine drink was so much cleverer than the folded newspaper, the flower in the buttonhole, the yellow gloves that were the hoary, slipshod call-signs between agents.”
In his book Everyday Drinking, Kingsley Amis, who would go on to author the first official James Bond novel after the death of Ian Fleming, described the Americano as “good at lunchtime and before Italian food.” He then went on to write: “If you feel that, pleasant as it is, it still lacks something, throw in a shot of gin and the result is a Negroni. This is a really fine invention. It has the power, rare with drinks and indeed with anything else, of cheering you up.” The first drink Bond has in Risico, while meeting with his contact Kristatos, is a Negroni, “with Gordon’s please” (in the movie For Your Eyes Only, which is loosely adapted in part from this story, the drink is changed to the Greek pastis ouzo, which happens to play a major role in Amis’ Bond novel, Colonel Sun). In the cinematic adaptation of Thunderball, Bond congratulates himself for disarming a henchman by mixing himself up a Negroni. The origins of the drink, like so many, are a mix of supposition and the acceptance of hearsay as fact because, eh, why not? That’s been the story for a long time.
“The room was sumptuous with those over-masculine trappings which, together with briar pipes and wire-haired terriers, spell luxury in France. Everything was brass-studded leather and polished mahogany. The curtains and carpets were in royal blue. The waiters wore striped waistcoats and green baize aprons. Bond ordered an Americano and examined the sprinkling of over-dressed customers, mostly from Paris he guessed, who sat talking with focus and vivacity, creating that theatrically clubbable atmosphere of l’heure de l’aperitif.” – Casino Royale, Chapter 5
I spent the better part of a week in New Orleans, seeking out voodoo hotspots and attending Tales of the Cocktail. My latest Frolic Afield for Alcohol Professor is about one of the many (very good) seminars I attended during that week. Bartender, There’s an Anchovy In My Drink is a look at the Italian Futurist movement and the futurist opinion on cocktails. And yes, one of the cocktails — or polibibita — had an anchovy chunk floating in it.
Over at my other home on Alcohol Professor, I’m spinning the tale of the rise and fall and rise of the American hotel bar and cocktail culture. Or rather, in Cocktail History: American Hotel Bars, I am writing about “Rediscovering the American Hotel Bar,” a Manhattan Cocktail Classic event in which Rene Hidalgo, head bartender at the Iroquois Hotel’s Lantern’s Keep, recounted the history of hotel bars to us while serving an awful lot of really good illustrative cocktails.
A seasonal Frolic Afield on Alcohol Professor celebrating both Krampusnacht and Repeal Day! Toasting Santa’s Devil showcases two beers, one American and one Italian, and one very special Krampus cocktail that will help you toast the repeal of Prohibition and the arrival of Santa’s most devilish sidekick.