The Read

What Spies Like To Drink

From James Bond’s Vesper Martini to George Smiley’s cup of Rosie Lee, we ask our favourite agents “what’s your poison?”

  • Mr Sean Connery in Diamonds Are Forever, 1971. Photograph by AF archive/Alamy

James Bond drank the world. James Bond drank so much, so emphatically and so showily, that he didn’t leave much for his successors to emulate. A few years ago, some dyspeptic doctors published an article in the British Medical Journal about Bond’s boozing. Far from admiring his panache, they were calculating his units. Across the Bond books, he drinks 1,150 units of alcohol in 88 days, amounting to about 92 units a week, roughly four times the recommended safe limit. He would be at risk of impotence, liver damage and early death, they crowed, and quite unable to function as impressively as he does. But then, in their line of business, they probably come across comparatively few immortals.

James Bond’s drinking is heroic and exemplary, even compared to his other exploits. Despite the shaken not stirred mantra, it’s champagne he drinks most in the books, followed by scotch and soda, although he also dispatches 20 or so vodka martinis and nearly as many gin versions. In his very first appearance, in Casino Royale in 1953, Bond delivers his precise requirements for a dry martini, christened the Vesper: “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?” He never has more than one drink before dinner, he explains, “but I do like that one to be large and very strong and very cold and very well-made”. No “very” before the “large”? No.

  • Ms Lea Seydoux and Mr Daniel Craig in Spectre, 2015. Photograph by United Artists/Allstar Picture Library

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In Mr Daniel Craig’s first appearance as Bond, in the 2006 remake of Casino Royale, he carefully reiterates those fusspot instructions, despite the bitter Kina (quinine) Lillet no longer being available, having been reformulated in 1986. After he has lost a fortune at the tables in Montenegro, Bond orders another and, asked if he wants it shaken or stirred, retorts, “Do I look like I give a damn?” The tease!

Mr Ian Fleming was a big brand buff from the off. Bond gives Vesper a little lecture on his choice of champagne, Tattinger Blanc de Blanc Brut 1943. “That is not a well-known brand,” Bond mansplains to his companion, “but it is probably the finest champagne in the world.” Other marques celebrated in the books include Bollinger, Dom Perignon, Veuve Clicquot, Krug and Pommery. Brand placement has always been part of the films, too, notably a whole run of vodkas, the Smirnoff label being lovingly pictured in 1997’s Tomorrow Never Dies, only to be followed by Absolut, Stolichnaya, Finlandia and Belvedere. In Casino Royale, there was a connoisseur-ish high point with a protracted (seven-second) lingering on a bottle of the fabulous 1982 Château Angelus Premier Grand Cru Classe St Emilion. There was much tutting, however, when Bond caressed a stubby of Heineken in Skyfall, in a deal that cost the brewery a rumoured £30 million, the purists’ objection being that, although Bond might drink beer, it would not be this plebian favourite.

Bond’s taste is always aspirational, though he doesn’t invariably get it right. In the second novel, Live And Let Die, published in 1954, he enjoys a bottle of Liebfraumilch, pronouncing this tasteless syrup “as good a Liebfraumilch as you can get in America”, a moment to treasure alongside Mr Cary Grant’s proud presentation of that exotic delicacy, quiche Lorraine – “You’ll enjoy this” – in 1955’s To Catch A Thief.

  • Messrs Sterling Hayden and Elliott Gould in The Long Goodbye, 1973. Photograph by PictureLux/eyevine

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Such slips apart, Agent 007 sets the bar for drinking as a display of glamour and savoir-faire. If by any actuarial calculation, he drinks too much, it is less than his creator downed. In Thunderball, Mr Fleming admiringly tells us that Bond drinks half a bottle of spirits a day. He himself drank a full bottle, switching from gin to bourbon because he believed it was healthier, and died aged 56. But Bond, that rocket of fantasy, never seems alcoholic.

Mr Raymond Chandler grappled more intently with his excessive drinking in The Long Goodbye, published in 1953, which may include a recipe for the perfect gimlet – “half gin and half Rose’s lime juice and nothing else” ­– but is a dark and troubling investigation by Philip Marlowe among alcoholics. Mr Chandler thought it his best book, but it was not made into a film until 1973, when Mr Robert Altman, casting Mr Elliott Gould in his weird but wonderful adaptation, not only updated the setting to the 1970s, but changed almost everything about the plot. Since then, many investigators, both on the page and on screen, have been drunk, as part of the darkness of the world they must face. Matt Scudder, Dave Robicheaux, John Rebus, Kurt Wallander and Harry Hole are all permanently off their head, whether actually on the sauce or not.

That extremity doesn’t work so well in espionage thrillers. And post-Bond, writers and directors all have to decide whether to try to rival 007’s flamboyant drinking, ridicule it (Austin Powers knowledgeably pronounces a mug of Fat Bastard’s Shit to be “a bit nutty”) or duck the challenge altogether.

  • Messrs Taron Egerton and Michael Caine in Kingsman: The Secret Service, 2014. Photograph by Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation/Photofest

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By far the most brilliant taking on and recreation of the Bond prestige drinks legacy is in Kingsman: The Secret Service, from that precious and unspilled glass of Dalmore 62 to the choice pairing of 45 Lafite with a Big Mac and the questionable treat of an 1815 Napoleonic brandy. Then we have Master Eggsy’s perfectly spiffy instructions on a proper martini: “gin, not vodka, obviously, stirred for 10 seconds, while glancing at an unopened bottle of vermouth”. Yet the greatest scene is when, in The Black Prince, Galahad (Mr Colin Firth) courteously asks a gang of youths to leave him “until I’ve finished this lovely pint of Guinness”. In the violence that follows, the aesthetic and mannerly difference between a straight-sided glass and that uncouth vessel, the beer mug, has never been more clearly demonstrated.

Mr John le Carré’s George Smiley is an anti-Bond – diffident, physically unimpressive, short and fat. Although he occasionally takes a late-night whisky, he’s no boozer, preferring tea (that “cup of mud”, according to Bond). His most famous conviviality comes in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy when he goes to see alcoholic former Circus analyst Connie Sachs and takes her a bottle of whisky and pours it into her tea cup to help the memories flow. In Mr Tomas Alfredson’s 2011 adaptation, Connie is memorably played by Ms Kathy Burke and delivers the great line, “I don’t know about you, George, but I’m feeling seriously underfucked,” thus producing the defining adjective for Smiley.

  • Mr Alec Guinness in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, 1979. Photograph by British Broadcasting Corporation/Photofest

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As for the action men, they have no time to stand and stare, let alone sink a few. It’s understandable, given its real-time gambit, that Jack Bauer should never be seen to drink or eat or need the loo in 24, although one scholar claims he can be spotted having a cup of coffee in season three. Neither Jason Bourne nor Ethan Hunt does much better refreshment-wise, running on pure adrenaline. One desperate reviewer of Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation lamented that, five films in, we still don’t know whether Ethan Hunt even drinks vodka martinis or not. The most satisfactory retort to Bond’s indulgence is Jack Reacher’s superbly monotonous coffee mania. Like everything else in his books, Mr Lee Child has pared the drinking down to essentials – black coffee only, constantly evaluated for quality, never differing. Reacher, we learn, started drinking coffee when he was four, copying his six-year-old brother. Mr Child himself, it appears from Dr Andy Martin’s devoted homage Reacher Said Nothing, drinks 20 cups a day, all great heroes being first a projection of their creators before becoming a projection of our fantasy, too.

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