Shaken, not stirred: RMFR celebrates 65 years of Bond’s Vesper martini at Retrograde

RMFR celebrates the 65th anniversary of the Vesper martini, a cocktail made famous by “Casino Royale” the first James Bond novel by Ian Fleming, published on April 13, 1953. The initial installment introduces the world to the enigmatic character, “007” and the book’s first print sold out in just a month’s time. 

Fleming’s novel is based upon his personal knowledge of espionage during World War II where he served in the Royal Navy, quickly becoming influential in the orchestration of secret operations. He began writing the first draft of “Casino Royale” in 1952 at his estate in Jamaica, named GoldenEye, after a surveillance plan he developed during the war.

The debut of Bond, also unearths the Vesper, a drink he orders in the seventh chapter:

“A dry martini. One. In a deep champagne goblet.”

“Oui, monsieur.”

“Just a moment. 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?”

“Certainly, monsieur.” The barman seemed pleased with the idea. 

“That’s certainly a drink,” said [Felix] Leiter. 

Bond laughed. “This drink’s my own invention. I’m going to patent it when I can think of a good name.”

Later, Bond names it after Vesper Lynd, his accomplice and eventual lover, whose name means “evening.”

Photo credit: Devin Richter, Sun Chaser Studios

To commemorate the occasion, RMFR seeks out Cory Leicester, beverage director at Retrograde, a stylish cocktail lounge hidden behind an ice cream shop in uptown Denver.

We park in North Capitol Hill and walk under the streetlights and rain to find the artisanal creamery, Frozen Matter. Towards the back of the brilliantly lit parlor, we see a walk-in cooler door with a switch to the left. We flip the toggle and a woman appears. She asks how many are in our party and quickly regresses back into the shadows. She returns a moment later and permits us access to what lies behind the refrigerator façade. 

We scream. Photo credit: Devin Richter, Sun Chaser Studios

We discover a mysterious space that evokes the work of Ken Adam – British production designer responsible for the Bond film sets in the 1960’s and 70’s. After we enjoy a Vesper at the bar in a silhouette ambience, we order from their B-rated, horror movie themed cocktail menu, featuring drinks They Live and From Beyond, and sit down with Leicester to learn what differentiates Retrograde and what he thinks of Bond’s drink of choice.

All the pretty lights. Photo credit: Devin Richter, Sun Chaser Studios

Born and raised in Colorado, Leicester’s journey into cocktails is as unique and methodical as Retrograde itself.

RMFR: What is your history and background in the hospitality industry? 

CL: Friends got me into the industry, which helped pay my way through school. I studied mechanical engineering but I clicked with this industry and I’ve worked in all types of environments, from sports bars to high-volume clubs. I started getting exposed to the craft cocktail movement around 2009. I was fortunate to work with notable people on the forefront of that in Colorado, and I transitioned in that direction.

As I was doing some development in Fort Collins, a company in Anchorage, [Alaska] reached out. They moved me [there] in 2015 to develop a high-end speakeasy bar in downtown Anchorage. The name of the bar is Blues Central. You call through a phone booth to obtain the password. We did an expansive menu with 90 cocktails. With that concept, I wanted to go big and drastically different from anything that market had seen. 

Cory Leicester, beverage director at Retrograde. Photo credit: Devin Richter, Sun Chaser Studios

RMFR: How did your journey lead you to Retrograde?

CL: Strangely enough, the owner of Retrograde sat at my bar in Anchorage. He found out that I was coming back [to Colorado], and we started chatting about he and his partner’s vision. I’m 17 years into this industry and to be able to come back to where it all started for me was something that really appealed to me and I couldn’t turn down. 

RMFR: Do you have a special place in your heart for speakeasies?

CL: I don’t really consider Retrograde a speakeasy because that carries Prohibition era connotations. The environment inside here is drastically different but, it is a hidden bar behind another business. It’s been fun to see the dichotomy between the cocktail bar and the parlor – the duality of the bright, welcoming parlor to the dark, dystopian, retro-futuristic feel.  

Photo credit: Devin Richter, Sun Chaser Studios

RMFR: What do you love about the craft cocktail industry?

CL: It’s not just the cocktails themselves, and the science and art behind them, but also that one-on-one interaction you get with the guests – it’s an intimate setting. It’s an absolute skill set too. People who dedicate themselves have to work to get good at what they do. Being inventive and getting into the history of cocktails – that resonates with me. 

Tylr Cheyenne lights up an Among Us with Rhum Clement VSOP, pear liqueur, pimento dram, a whole egg and flamed Angostura bitters. Photo credit: Devin Richter, Sun Chaser Studios

RFMR: What do you think constitutes a solid martini? 

CL: The martini holds a special place for me. When I began studying bartending I knew I wanted to make a phenomenal martini because people who love martinis are dedicated to them. It’s the first cocktail where I paid attention to different aspects of technique versus ingredients versus ratios versus temperature control. 

Photo credit: Devin Richter, Sun Chaser Studios

What makes a martini is technique. You want to stir the cocktail so you are not incorporating a lot of air into it. [With stirring] you’re dropping the temperature without diluting it so it maintains a viscous mouth-feel. Stirring really showcases the flavors of the spirits. 

My order would be a Gibson. It’s a gin-based martini garnished with cocktail onions. 

RMFR: What are your thoughts on the Vesper?

Photo credit: Devin Richter, Sun Chaser Studios

CL: The Vesper is legendary within cocktail lore. It pushed the martini to the forefront of the cocktail lexicon. I love how it’s ordered in “Casino Royale where it’s three measures of Gordon’s gin, one measure of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet – shaken not stirred – finished with a long, thin lemon peel. 

Regardless of anybody’s thoughts on what a cocktail is or should be, that’s how he wanted his cocktail and that’s how he drank it. I embrace that philosophy more than anything: Drink whatever you want to drink and how you want to drink it. 

For a time, you weren’t truly able to recreate the Vesper as Bond had ordered it because the company that created Kina Lillet had adapted and modernized their recipe for an American palate. They pulled quinine out to create Lillet Blanc. It removed the bitter element that is called for in the Vesper. Cocchi Americo is almost a perfect substitute for the original Kina Lillet. It has that bitter element so we are now able to replicate the Vesper as Fleming had written it in 1953. 

RMFR: What are some of your other favorite cocktails?

CL: It depends on my mood. If I’m in the mood for something energetic I may go in a direction that’s high in acidic content with lemon or lime. If I’m in the mood to mellow out it’s going to be something full-spirit and viscous like what we are talking about with the martini. For something bright and refreshing I love The Last Word as well as the Scofflaw

My favorite cocktail is the Vieux Carré which is rye whisky, cognac, sweet vermouth, Benedictine, and a couple distinct bitters. It’s incredibly complex with a rich flavor to it. It’s an interesting, contemplative drink. Recently, I was in New Orleans, and I got to sit at the Carousel Bar in the Hotel Monteleone, which is where the Vieux Carré was created. 

RMFR: Has your education in mechanical engineering played a role in your career?

CL: Absolutely. I use a lot of engineering theory in building drinks. There are fundamental, formulaic structures – certain ratios that are time-tested that I work closely with. Beyond that, there are technical aspects of our homemade ingredients – paying attention to pH levels, temperature control and looking at your Brix count, which is your sugar content. 

Homemade syrups. Photo credit: Devin Richter, Sun Chaser Studios

RMFR: What’s next for Retrograde? 

CL: We will continue our culture of caring for our guests first. On top of that, we want to continue embracing the cocktail with fresh ingredients and proper technique – hopefully creating a product that resonates.

The menu changes seasonally so we’re looking at big changes within the next month. We want to cause some excitement and have people looking forward to what we can do while enjoying the atmosphere. We strive to create a one-of-a-kind experience. 

Follow Leicester and Retrograde’s progressive cocktail movement on Instagram @retrograde_dnvr. Photo credit: Devin Richter, Sun Chaser Studios

*Header image courtesy of Devin Richter, Sun Chaser Studios