Tinker, Tailor, Soldier… Drunk

Who would serve a jug or pitcher of martini at a party?

Oh wait, only Kim Philby, one of Britain’s most notorious traitors.

  
I’ve just read a book entitled “a spy among friends” by Ben MacIntyre. It was the first book I’ve read in a long time that I struggled to put down. It documents the story of Harold ‘Kim’ Philby as he worked his way into the inner sanctums of British intelligence.

He was considered trustworthy for decades because he was seen as a part of the British ‘establishment’ (he came from a reputable family, went to public school, and attended Cambridge University). 

In stark contrast, however, he was a member of the infamous Cambridge Spy Network who wreaked untold damage on Western Cold War activities.

  

Philby was recruited by Soviet agents shortly after he graduated and provided Moscow with extensive British and American secrets for many years. By the time he defected to the USSR in the 1960s it is estimated that hundreds, if not thousands of people had died because of his actions.

The pressures of intelligence work evidently led to heavy drinking amongst most agents (this might continue today – I am not fully aware, although I’ve been told that consumption is a lot lower than it used to be).

The pressures of being a mole in this already stressful environment evidently took a particularly high toll on Philby – as well as his long-suffering family: his mother and second wife both died alcoholics while he himself was regularly seen in an unconscious state of inebriation. 

Despite his own alcohol intake, however, he managed to survive to the age of 76. In the end, he died in Moscow in 1988, shortly before the collapse of the Soviet Union, ending the ideological regime he had believed in so steadfastly; the way of governance he betrayed so much for.

While reading about his eventful life I noticed the reappearance of martinis on several occasions and made a note of each one. Sir Ian Fleming pops up in the stories here and there, of course famous for his creation of martini fan James Bond.

  
A personal favourite was the story involving the cocktail bar in World War Two Istanbul. The lady who ran the bar mixed up “volcanic martinis” for her British officer clientele, then sat back and listened while they drunkenly spilled our state secrets for her to pass on to the Nazis. In vino veritas indeed, or should that be in martinis veritas?

The noteworthy ‘pitchers’ of martini were recorded at cocktail and dinner parties held at the Philby household in Washington DC. Intense drunkenness ensued with sometimes shocking social results.

Such parties involved an even greater level of risk when Philby allowed for the mixing of British agents, American agents and British spies working for the Soviets. I think it’s a wonder he got away with being a spy for so long without letting slip during one of his drunken binges. Evidently his lips were sealed even when he was at his most intoxicated. Stalin would have been impressed.

  
During later cocktail parties at his home in Beirut he taught his young son how to mix up a “fierce” martini for the guests. Start ’em young I say. I was taught how to pour G&Ts and whiskies with water for the family when I was well below drinking age so I don’t think it’s the worst thing to happen. Indeed I enjoyed being allowed to socialise with the adults at that age. It was a privilege for the well-behaved.

  
Ultimately though, Kim Philby’s life appears to have been one of loneliness and an ultimate lack of fulfilment. No-one ever truly knew him. While sexually intimate with several women, he was never psychologically intimate enough with anyone to truly bond or connect with them.

While I use martinis to bond with others, he used them to lull his potential foes and numb the pains of his own personal transgressions.

In the end he died with few, if any friends. He had betrayed most of them for an ideology soon to fall apart. What a terrible use of martinis.

I’ll tell you what isn’t a waste though: this book! 

The man from the Alphabet Agencies

While attending an ‘event’ in a certain Middle Eastern city, I was introduced to a charming gentleman from, shall we say, one of the ‘Alphabet Agencies’.

While our discussion covered subjects including politics, diplomacy and turmoil in the region, it settled upon the subject of martinis, of which we are both fond.

When one works in the business of ‘international affairs’, a strong martini is sometimes the only thing that will soothe your mind at the end of the day. I also mentioned earlier the inextricable link between martinis and a certain specialist in the field.

The gentleman gave me his variation on the classic version of a martini: add a teaspoon of limoncello.

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Made in Southern Italy (or your own home) by infusing clear spirit (such as vodka) with lemon peel (and adding sugar), limoncello is a popular drink in my household already (my mother makes the best).

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I have also written earlier about the importance of lemons to a martini.

The marriage of the two makes for a delightful variation on the classic.

“Shaken, not stirred”

Whether or not you are a fan of Ian Fleming’s work, you cannot deny the inextricable association of James Bond with martinis.

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When Mr. Fleming was writing about this complicated anti-hero character it was a time of austerity and post-war reconstruction, when international travel was for the few and parts of the world were rendered out-of-bounds by the Cold War. Part of the appeal of Bond was surely his international lifestyle, one of class, travel and sophistication.

The martini played right into this image.

The “shaken, not stirred” catch-phrase was apparently coined by Fleming at one of my favourite establishments: the bar at Dukes Hotel in St. James’s, London.

Shaking the drink with ice adds an effervescent quality. Stirring it leaves it slightly stronger and more viscous. I prefer the latter. If the gin is cold enough it has an almost oily quality.

Bond also liked vodka martinis (preferably Russian or Polish vodka). I’m a gin fan myself, but I’ve certainly been known to enjoy Polish vodka) on a number of occasions.

Whichever way you prefer your martini, I recommend at least one trip to Dukes bar during your lifetime. Go and have yourself a famous “Vesper” martini, named after the enduring Bond girl Vesper Lynd. Dress for the occasion and enjoy the experience.

But remember, Dukes bar adheres to the ‘two martini’ rule.

The Vesper Martini

The Vesper martini was invented by James Bond in Ian Fleming’s classic novel Casino Royale.
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He named it after the character Vesper Lynd, played by Eva Green in the 2006 film version of the book.

The original recipe is as follows:

3 measures of gin
1 measure of vodka
Half a measure of Kina Lillet

Shake with ice then strain into a glass and serve with a thin slice of lemon peel.
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However, Kina Lillet is nearly impossible to acquire today without a time machine, so one must improvise with Lillet blanc, to which you could also add a dash of angostura bitters once the drink has been poured.

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Lillet blanc is a French aperitif ‘tonic’ wine, blended with citrus liqueurs and Cinchona bark. The citrus liqueurs include Mediterranean limes and oranges from countries such as Spain and Morocco, while Cinchona (which contains quinine) comes from Peru. Combine this with Russian or Polish vodka, British gin, perhaps some Sicilian olives, Middle Eastern pistachio nuts, Bombay mix and say, some ‘izakaya’ style snacks from Japan (see here for more ideas) and you’ve got yourself a perfect international fait accompli, synonymous with Britain’s favourite spy, played here by Daniel Craig:

You can’t beat a classic.