James Bond is the iconic British spy that defined an entire genre. The epitome of cool for a generation. The manliest man that walked the streets, license to kill in hand. But there’s something odd about the character: for the manliest man alive, he sure drinks a wimpy cocktail. So, what’s the deal? Why, despite being created by a Scot, does this character insist on his vodka martini shaken, not stirred?
James Bond Was A Faceless Nobody. Like His Liquor.
The original James Bond character produced by Ian Fleming, while based partially on the author, was intended to be as much of a blank slate as possible. An inoffensive, drab, boring individual that could be placed into almost any story. As the author himself describes the idea:
When I wrote the first one in 1953, I wanted Bond to be an extremely dull, uninteresting man to whom things happened; I wanted him to be a blunt instrument … when I was casting around for a name for my protagonist I thought by God, [James Bond] is the dullest name I ever heard.Ian Fleming, The New Yorker, 21 April 1962
That desire for a bland, uninteresting character went as far as the choice of cocktail. Instead of going with something like a scotch, Fleming chose the bland and tasteless vodka. But that wasn’t all — he went further, having his character ask for his classic vodka martinis “shaken, not stirred.” From a mixology perspective, that pretty much ruins the drink. It adds a ton of water to the mixture, removing any last traces of flavor and toning down the alcohol content. Perfect for the milquetoast Mr. Bond.
But then something strange happened… vodka became cool.
The Whiskey Crash and the Rise of Vodka
The culture of the 1960’s represented a radical and rapid rejection of the stoic and traditional lifestyle that had been standard since the great depression. That counter culture manifested itself in clothing and fashion, music, architecture, and yes – even the choice of spirits people were drinking.
It definitely didn’t help that the more popular brands of whiskey at the time were rather terrible blends, but whiskey definitely had a bad image. The Don Draper stereotype was very much alive and well: the whiskey-drinking businessman in his well cut suit. It’s an image the whiskey world embraced, but as the 1960’s kicked into gear, that image would be its downfall.
Thanks in part to some fantastic marketing, vodka started becoming the spirit of choice for the cool hip crowd. It was the perfect antithesis of everything whiskey represented. Instead of a traditional and strictly regulated production method, it could be made from pretty much anything. Whereas whiskey had a distinct and rich flavor with a variable color, vodka was clear and flavorless. Instead of taking years to mature, it was ready straight off the still. And instead of using centuries old distilling techniques, it relied on high-tech column stills to be effectively produced. It, like the space program, was a marvel of modern engineering.
When talking about the history of whiskey in the United States, there are two great tragedies. The first is the obvious one with prohibition, but the second is the whiskey crash of the 1960’s and 1970’s. That rejection of traditional whiskey combined with the rise of vodka made demand for whiskey drop like a stone. Worsening the situation, thanks to the long maturation period for whiskey, distilleries weren’t able to accurately make their supply match the demand. They were over producing and spending way more money on new spirits and storage of the existing stock than they could possibly take in as profit. As the balance sheets drifted further into the red, more and more distilleries around the world would close – some forever.
James Bond: The Modern Cowboy
Throughout the 1940’s and 1950’s, the cowboy movie reigned supreme as far as popular settings and tropes go. The lone gunslinger, traveling from town to town, righting wrongs and solving problems — often with his firearm. But, just like the whiskey those cowboys typically enjoyed, they were a relic of the “traditional culture.” By the 1960’s, though, the emerging adult generation wanted something new and exciting. Something modern.
By all rights, James Bond should have been an artifact of the past by the time the first movies came out. Just like the westerns or World War II stories of the 1960’s, his appeal would have been more limited in scope. That decade would see the decline and near extinction of those kinds of films, but instead, James Bond’s 1962 film Dr. No would instead spark a completely new genre of movie: the modern spy thriller.
Why did James Bond succeed where these other films failed? It’s because he drank vodka, not whiskey.
Well, okay, maybe not solely because of that fact. But that one design choice in the character – drinking a spirit that was on the rise in popularity in the world and a rejection of the traditional spirits – hinted to this new audience that this wasn’t some old stodgy relic of the past. This was someone cool. Someone hip. Someone who followed the new trends.
That one germ of modern sensibilities opened the door to what would eventually be the hallmarks of the James Bond franchise. Dr. No would be the single film in the James Bond series where the titular spy would, arguably, use no gadgets whatsoever. That would change drastically, as in the very next movie and from then onwards James Bond would be a series that relied heavily on futuristic technology. Even the villainous plots of the antagonists would rely on futuristic technology and focus on modern developments — Dr. No’s plan, for example, was to disrupt an American space launch.
But the one thing that has never changed: a little over 20 minutes into the very first movie, James has his very first medium dry vodka martini. Shaken, not stirred. From a very prominently placed Smirnoff vodka bottle, a company who was at the leading edge of the marketing push behind vodka.
Just like how James’ vodka martini gave a former World War II soldier just enough of the 1960’s style to make him attractive to the modern audience, by using that same concept the film makers could pull in tropes from other genres. The story could ostensibly be about this modern hip secret agent fighting high-tech mad scientists — but if you changed the setting and the costumes, the story could just as easily been about a lone cowboy trying to bring down the local corrupt business man running the town saloon. Or any one of the globe-trotting adventure movies that were popular in the 1940’s and 1950’s. Just wrapped in the sounds, the style, and the spirits of the 1960’s.
Just one year before Dr. No, The Guns of Navarone would debut in theatres. Just like James Bond, the film was an adaptation of a novel about a World War II era special forces group and their efforts to destroy Nazi Germany. It’s one of my favorite war movies from that era, and it did relatively well by pulling in about $25 million. The James Bond film adaptation could have very easily followed the same path, sticking to the era in which the characters were written and not moving the style or the story. But that one aspect of James Bond’s character made him more modern, more relatable, and opened the door for the script changes in the adaptation of the story to make him more of a man of the 1960’s. And thanks to that decision to make James Bond a vodka-drinking-wimp, Dr. No went on to rake in $59.5 million, launch an ongoing franchise of movies, and kicked off an entire genre of movies.