LONDON – When the character James Bond orders his signature vodka martini ─ shaken, not stirred ─ his creator, Ian Fleming, was almost surely inspired by the cocktails he used to regularly enjoy at one of his favorite London bars ─ Dukes Bar in Dukes Hotel.
But if you think Fleming’s favorite drink was the same as 007, think again.
The former Naval Intelligence Office, journalist, and best-selling spy novelist was not a vodka martini man. Like many well-heeled Eton College men, Fleming’s liquor of choice was gin or scotch, according to Alessandro Palazzi, the dapper, head bartender at Dukes Bar.
But whether you’re drinking a gin or vodka martini or another classic drink, nothing comes close to the perfect cocktails made at this intimate, club-like bar that’s close to everything, and, yet, feels like a world away from everywhere else.
There are two ways you can get to Dukes Bar:
You can walk up Piccadilly Street past Fortnum & Mason and many other stores located near Piccadilly Circus and take a left down St. James Street past The Ritz and The Stafford.
Or, if you’re the adventurous type and love exploring the narrow, hidden alleys that make London unique, start from Greene Park. Walking from The Mall, look for the narrow passageway on your right just past Spencer House. Centuries ago, local farmers used passageways like this one to bring their sheep to graze in Greene Park. As a result, the passageway must remain in place by law in perpetuity.
… everyone is engaged in intimate conversations, the way people used to be all the time in bars everywhere.
It’s easy to get turned around walking to Dukes Bar for the first time. And, once you’re inside Dukes Hotel, the bar isn’t easy to find either. Like so many places in Britain, it’s tucked behind a small, unmarked door that leads to a phone booth-sized entryway that leads into the bar. No modern hotel would ever dream of designing a hotel or a bar this way ─ and that’s part of its charm. Dukes Bar looks and feels like an old gentleman’s club.
Another appealing aspect of Dukes Bar ─ there’s no music, no television. The only distractions are the old prints and paintings hanging on the walls, many of which feature horses or other outdoor activities. As a result, everyone is engaged in intimate conversations, the way people used to be all the time in bars everywhere.
Dukes Bar seems small, at first. Then, you soon realize the bar consists of three, intimate rooms arranged in an L shape. Another thing you’ll notice – there’s no bar in Dukes Bar. Everyone sits at small, round tables, many with “reserved” signs on them.
But one of the most notable features of Dukes Bar is where the bartenders create your drinks. Soon after you place your order, a bartender wearing a white jacket and black tie approaches your table pushing a small wooden cart, the kind normally used to wheel out the cheese course or Baked Alaska after dinner. Except, in this case, the cart contains all the ingredients for your cocktail.
The cart wheeled to our table one recent Friday afternoon contained the ingredients for two martinis, one gin, the other Vodka.
Dukes is famous for reportedly making some of the best martinis in the world.
So how good are they? Absolutely fabulous.
And that’s probably because one of the toughest critics works right in the bar.
Our first bartender made my wife’s bone-dry gin martini using Plymouth gin, a splash of house-made vermouth, and three olives from Sicily.
My vodka martini was made using Potocki vodka from Poland, a touch of the same homemade vermouth, and a slight twist of lemon from Italy’s Amalfi Coast.
Both martinis were served in glasses recently removed from the freezer. The same was true for the Plymouth gin and Potocki vodka. Both were ice cold.
The first sip of the Plymouth gin martini left a refreshing tingle on the tip of my lips. As for the Potocki vodka martini, it tasted clean and crisp, yet aromatic, with just a slight hint of fresh lemons.
Then Dukes’ head bartender, Alessandro Palazzi, approached our table. He looked at my wife’s martini with three Sicilian olives in it and asked, “Would you want to try the perfect martini?”
She didn’t need long to think. When one of the greatest bartenders in the world offers to make you the perfect martini, you say yes.
Palazzi then took my wife’s drink away and returned a few minutes later with another cart and another set of ingredients. This time, Palazzi wheeled out Sacred gin, which Palazzi said was Ian Fleming’s favorite gin.
Palazzi also explained that the Sicilian olives in a dish on our table were not salted since the salt could interfere with the taste of our martinis. That comment, in particular, stuck in my mind. When a bartender cares enough about how the bar snacks might interfere with the flavors in a cocktail, you know you have put your trust in a world-class bartender.
Palazzi then said something surprising about martinis as he prepared the perfect one for my wife. “It’s the simplest cocktail,” he said.
But don’t let Palazzi’s words fool you. Watching him was like watching a great chef cook or a world-class dancer on stage. Palazzi paid close attention to every detail. His movements were graceful, yet precise. After pouring a dash of the bar’s homemade vermouth into my wife’s martini glass, he asked her how dry she likes her gin martinis.
Bone dry, my wife replied.
Palazzi responded by splashing out the small amount of vermouth in her new glass straight onto the carpeted floor. There was hardly anything in the glass, but it was a bold, confident gesture.
Palazzi then poured the Sacred gin into the new martini glass and proceeded to cut a razor-thin slice of lemon off one of the Sicilian lemons Palazzi raved about as he stood beside our table.
Like a dancer moving his hands gracefully in the air, Palazzi then barely brushed the lemon against the rim of the glass, then carefully placed the lemon slice into the drink. That was it. No olives. No shaking. Not even much stirring.
Palazzi then handed the new gin martini to my wife. She took a sip, then I did soon after, as well. This gin martini tasted smoother than the first one, which was terrific, to begin with. The new one also tasted more subtle, more elegant. There were hints of jasmine and a slight hint of citrus.
As for my vodka martini, caramel flavors began to emerge as my drink slowly warmed up.
As the second gin martini slowly warmed up, the citrus flavors became even more prominent.
A little while later, my vodka martini almost took on a tropical flavor as the drink warmed up even more.
As for the second gin martini, the citrus flavors were replaced by a clean, crisp aftertaste that left a slight sting on the tip of my lips.
Both martinis reminded me of the thrill many of us associate with drinking great, older red wines. Both martinis changed and evolved as we sipped our drinks over the course of a half hour, or so.
No wonder Fleming loved drinking gin martinis at Dukes Bar. And, no wonder he decided to have 007 drink vodka martinis in his novels. When both martinis at Dukes are this amazing, why limit yourself to one type?
And, as we were leaving the bar, Palazzi excused himself from a table, came over to my wife, kissed her hand and said, “Until we meet again.”
The perfect ending to two-and-a-half, perfect drinks.
Dukes Hotel, 35 St James’s Pl, St. James’s, London SW1A 1NY, UK
Monday to Saturday, 2 – 11 p.m.
Sundays, 4 – 10:30 p.m.