By Harry Sword (Vice.com)
Dukes is a veritable institution in old-school London boozing.
Well hidden among the white-walled government buildings of Mayfair, the small, beautifully preserved hotel bar has not changed much over the past hundred years. It features green velvet, old carpets, wood paneling, large oil paintings of red-faced men out on country pursuits, and the best martini in London—and, many would say, the world.
Famed for both its elaborate preparation and theatrical presentation—courtesy of head barman Alessandro Palazzi and his team—the Dukes martini is prepared tableside. And if you’re lucky enough to be served by Alessandro, it will probably come with a story or two.
You see, Dukes was where Ian Fleming found his liquid inspiration. Fond of the turbo-strength cocktails, clubby Mayfair ambience, and understated class, the mastermind behind James Bond was a serious drinker. Fleming imbibed, as his biographer John Pearson so memorably described, “in the American way”: “Vodka martinis or very brown whiskey sodas would appear late in the day and he would drink rather heavily then… large slugs of alcohol, often gin, [and] big martinis that were virtually iced gin.”
A great bar is only as great as its head barman, however. Luckily for Dukes, Palazzi is one of the best. Born in Italy and now entering his 40th year in the industry, he has worked in such famed establishments as the Berkley Hotel in London, the Ritz in Paris, and Great Eastern on Liverpool Street.
MUNCHIES caught up with Palazzi in Dukes Bar to talk tradition, innovation, and his famous “two martini”rule.
MUNCHIES: Hi, Alessandro. Tell me about the famous Vesper martini.
Alessandro Palazzi: In Casino Royale, the first Bond novel, there is the love story between Bond and Vesper [Lynd]. A lot of people confuse the word “Vesper”with the motorbike, but Fleming named the drink after the girl. In the book, he says to the bartender, “Make me a Martini: half a measure of Kina Lillet, one part of vodka, three parts of Gordon’s gin, shaken vigorously. And then finish with a twist of lemon.” But at that time, the mix of gin and vodka was never done. He created a recipe which deliberately broke the rules.
When Fleming was younger, he was a journalist for a short time and was sent to Russia, where he drank vodka. The vodka he drank would have been unfiltered. It was thicker—quite a different drink to the vodka we drink now. Only the wealthy in Russia had access to quality vodka. Fleming helped to popularise vodka; after the success of the films, everybody wanted to drink vodka. But you cannot make Fleming’s Vesper anymore. Vodka was different, the gin was different, and they stopped making true Kina Lillet in 1939. They completely changed the profile of the drink.
So my Vesper is my interpretation, my tribute to Fleming. It is made like this: The glass is frozen—a martini has to be very cold. Then a drop of Angostura bitters. The vermouth we use is English. I work with Sacred distillery in Highgate, and the botanicals used come from the UK. The vodka is a Polish vodka called Potoski. This is because when Fleming was a chief commander in the Naval Office during the war, a beautiful Polish lady impressed him very much; she crossed enemy lines in order to spy for England. So, the vodka I use for the Vesper is Polish.
The gin comes from Berry Brothers. This is a traditional gin of the kind that Fleming would have had. This one is 46 percent and there are only six botanicals. It is a simple, strong, old-style gin. Berry Brothers are based here in St. James. They have been around for hundreds of years, and St. James was, of course, Mr. Fleming’s playground. I wanted something where the soul of Fleming comes through in the drink.
Lastly, instead of a lemon, I use an organic orange. Zest the oil onto the top, then add the peel. Look at the magic—you see the oil on top of the drink? The smell of it? This gives it a different flavour: Because the alcohol has been frozen, it allows the orange oil to float on top. As you drink, the smell of orange comes through. That is how you can distinguish a good martini from bad. If you go to a bar and the first thing you get is a strong smell of alcohol, I’d be advised to ask the bartender to remake it.
You have a famous “two martini” rule, correct?
The old money—the old-school clientele—were more used to drinking. They drank in the mornings; they drank more, but they were more subtle with drinking. Take the journalists. They would go out to lunch and drink, but they knew how to drink. They might fall over now and again, but they could always maintain the persona, the face. When the bar was made more accessible, a lot of the new people we had coming in did not understand how strong the martini can be.
We had people trying to drink it in five minutes—they didn’t have a clue. We want people to take their time. Our martini will not only stay cold, but also change over time. I want people to take their time. Frozen alcohol can numb you; you drink it faster and then get the effect afterwards. Some of the older customers, we will do a third martini for them, but there are not so many of them. And that is because I know that they can handle it.
I’ve got to ask your view on mixing. Because you neither shake nor stir your martini.
You don’t need to shake or stir a martini. It’s a very powerful phrase, but in those days there was a lot of etiquette in drinking. Bond comes in and he asks for martini “shaken, not stirred,” but that is because Bond breaks all the rules—with woman and food and everything. But it also shows how such a small sentence becomes such a powerful sentence. If we’re talking technically, the reason that you would not shake it is that you would break the ice, diluting the drink and making it cloudy. You would not want this in a martini or a Manhattan. Nobody has ever asked, in my career, for a shaken Manhattan.
But my view is that you have to have an open mind; if somebody asks for a martini shaken, like Bond, I will do it for them. I personally don’t like a dirty martini, but if you ask me for a dirty Martini I will make you one. One of my most famous is the white truffle Martini. If I did this 30 years ago, I would have been shot outside Buckingham Palace. It would have been taboo.
Read the rest of the story in Munchies / Vice