For over 60 years, Dukes Bar in London has held the illustrious reputation of serving the best martinis in town. But there is more to it than that: it is the personalised experience. The knowledge that you’re drinking in the very room that Bond’s creator, Ian Fleming, coined the immortal phrase ‘shaken, not stirred’; and the mesmerising skill of head bartender Alessandro Palazzi, our 2017 Barman of the Year.
On entering Dukes I am greeted by Alessandro as if a long lost friend. His charm, similar to that of the bar’s reputation, is legendary. “I was born a bartender, and I will die a bartender,” he tells me later in the evening – he has been in the profession since 1975; the last decade of which has been in the top job at Dukes Bar.
He beckons me to the Spy Table, so-called because is it positioned away from others to enable private conversations – Dukes was once a popular watering hole for Fleet Street journalists, who fuelled their work by eavesdropping on their neighbours. It was on this table that the 40s and 50s elite would conduct clandestine meetings, or perhaps rendezvous with a mistress. Alessandro hands me a cocktail menu, proffering towards the martini list, before skipping off spiritedly to welcome a smart elderly couple who have found their way here through the metropolis maze.
"I was born a bartender, and I will die a bartender..."
Given the reputation that precedes Dukes, it is relatively unassuming, if almost shabby. But charmingly so. It retains a traditional essence long forgotten to most of London – it’s easy to imagine Fleming sat in a corner, cigarette in one hand, martini in the other, whiling the night away before returning to his apartment on Ebury Street slightly worse for wear.
The fact that Dukes was Fleming’s desired local is still a major attraction, but high-calibre heritage alone is not enough to cement its position as the best martini in town. “The beauty of London is that it is constantly evolving,” says Alessandro, wheeling a small wooden drink’s trolley beside the table. “New bars are popping up all the time, and so we are always changing and adapting our menu to improve.”
The martini list is a nod to both old and new; the classics feature, of course, but more notable are Alessandro’s Bond-inspired creations of the last five years – he is constantly one light-bulb moment away from his next invention. But it’s not always easy. The Dukes 89, for example, a collaboration with perfumer Floris – whose No. 89 Eau de Toilette was Bond’s signature scent – took more than a month to perfect.
My companion opts for a Dukes Vodka Martini. “A wise choice,” says Alessandro, twirling a cocktail glass in circles to spread a thin film of beautifully-acerbic Vermouth. He deftly pours Polish Potocki vodka from a frozen bottle into the glass, before caressing the rim with a coil of lemon peel. With a sharp twist the air fills with spitting citrus and he drops the coil into the icy liquid.
I query the use of Polish vodka, ignorantly assuming that the menu would feature the well-known Russian names. “We aren’t owned by a drink’s company,” Alessandro says proudly, “so I have no restriction on what spirits I can use – we have gin from Columbia, and vodka from Texas, London and Japan. We only use the very best.” He diverts his attention to a fresh glass on the trolley. “And the Vesper for you, Patrick?”
"I have no restriction on what spirits I can use – we have gin from Columbia, and vodka from Texas, London and Japan..."
Alessandro created the Vesper to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first Bond film, Casino Royale. In it the British agent doles out specific instructions on how to make his drink: three measures of Gordon’s, one measure of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet, and a slice of lemon; ‘shaken, not stirred’.
“That’s not really how to drink a martini,” Alessandro says with a grin. “We only stir, to keep the clarity and flavour. Saying that, in the 1950s cocktails were only ever served as an apéritif before dinner, and it was seen to be a real faux-pas to mix two white spirits. Not so with Bond though…” And that’s exactly how Fleming intended 007; a rebel for whom rules held the strength of fog.
In Dukes, however, Bond is to be admired and regaled rather than emulated – and a martini is to be enjoyed over a sustained period of time rather than thrown back before crashing out the door to pursue Le Chiffre.
Putting his own mark on the Vesper – named after Bond girl Vesper Lynd – Alessandro adds Angostura bitters and a lick of Vermouth, substitutes Russian vodka for the Potocki, and favours orange zest over the lemon slice. It is stunningly good.
“For a drink to be a cocktail,” says Alessandro, “it needs three ingredients. Gin, tonic and lemon, for example. The same is true for a good bartender. They must have three ingredients: to be diplomatic, acrobatic and charismatic.” And with that he darts off to educate another table on the ways of Ian Fleming, leaving us to sip on the best martinis in town.
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