35 St James's Place
London, SW1A 1NY
020 7491 4840
Nestled in a quiet cul-de-sac beside the leafy expanse of London’s Green Park, DUKES Bar is the birthplace of the Vesper Martini – and a gin connoisseur’s paradise, to boot.
Once a refuge for royalty, DUKES LONDON has a rich history. But for gin lovers, these rarefied former residents can’t hope to hold a candle to a much more modern fixture: Alessandro Palazzi, head bartender and master of the Martini.
With its dark blue furniture, warm wooden bar and framed portraits, you would be forgiven for thinking that DUKES is a private members club. It’s every inch a place you can imagine Ian Fleming –spy, author and inventor of that most British of action heroes, James Bond – frequenting for a stiff drink. There’s an Old Boy charm about the whole affair, and it doesn’t end when a smiling Italian bartender in a crisp white blazer greets you at the door. The entire DUKES staff hails from bella Italia, as it happens.
“For the last 40 years,” Palazzi says, “there has always been an Italian bartender. The team I have now used to work with me, or their bosses in Italy used to work with me. But most of all they are bartenders. That’s what we do here – we don’t make our own products. We’re bartenders.”
Palazzi himself – who has tended some of the most illustrious bars in the world, including the Paris Ritz – is himself a bit of a rebel. A lover of the Negroni, he made waves in catering school when he questioned why the classic aperitif could only be drunk before dinner. And here at DUKES he’s been on a quest to bring the classic establishment into the modern era without wrecking what makes it so unique.
He says: “Because of the history of the place I couldn’t change too much – I just took the same idea and added in different things. For instance, all of the lemons we use come from Amalfi. The vermouth that we do is made by [north London distiller] Sacred. In my predecessor’s time there were a lot of old men [drinking here]; it was very classic. Martinis would only be done with lemon, and if you asked for a dirty martini they would kick you out.”
Things are different at DUKES now – you can safely order olives in your Martini, for example, and the dress code has been relaxed – but not too different. After all, why fix what isn’t broken? Case in point: the famed Martini cart, a central prop in the magnificently gratifying theatre that is ordering a drink at DUKES.
Once you select a cocktail off the menu – there are no extravagant creations here, just a pared down list of perfectly curated classics – your bartender will disappear just long enough to stock his (or her – Palazzi was responsible for hiring the first female bartender in DUKEShistory) cart with the spirits, garnishes and glassware needed to make you the perfect cocktail.
Here your drinks are made right in front of you, with flourish and drama – this the place, after all, where the bartenders rinse your martini glass with vermouth and then toss it on the carpet.
But conversation is also on the agenda. Palazzi keeps his menu slim and his spirits selection on the small side – you’ll find about 15 bottles of gin behind the bar at DUKES, some on the menu and some off, all hand-selected from around the world – so that his staff can develop the kind of in-depth knowledge they need to guide and delight their customers.
He says: “People are much more knowledgeable now, and the reason is because there is more interest in what we do. Many years ago bartenders weren’t visible, but now we’re in magazines or on websites and people are much more curious.”
“The same thing has happened with gin,” he continues. “Ten years ago there were five gins. But now? Who knows?”
As one of Alessandro’s passions – and the primary ingredient in his bar’s signature cocktail – gin takes pride of place at DUKES. With close ties to independent distillers (some he consults for, others were started by long-time customers), Alessandro is a true ambassador for smaller brands.He says: “We tend, especially when we’re serving people from overseas, to introduce people to smaller suppliers. Because Bombay, Tanqueray – you can find them everywhere. Smaller producers you cannot.”
But whichever bottle you choose, don’t expect the gin to take anything but centre stage. What’s the point of buying a beautiful Dover sole, Alessandro says, if you’re just going to smother it with cream and mushrooms? “It’s the same with [high quality gin]. It’s very much the idea of Italian cooking: you see something very simple done properly.”
Alessandro’s Tips for a Perfect Gin Martini
Tip One: Get your glasses and alcohol as cold as possible
Very cold gin makes for a perfect Martini, and it will stay colder for longer if your glasses are chilled as well. Notice how frozen gin’s texture changes; it’s thicker, with a smoother mouth feel. Using cold spirits will also help your garnish’s essential oils float on top of the liquor, making citrus first to hit your palate and nose.
Tip Two: Use small glasses
Small glasses have less surface area, which means that they – and their contents – warm up more slowly. At DUKES a white-blazered bartender will be along to replace your glass if it comes to room temperature; at home it might be worth having a spare glass ready in the freezer.
Tip Three: Skip the shaking AND stirring
According to Alessandro, either shaking or stirring your Martini with ice introduces too much water. And, if you’re keeping your glasses and spirits in the freezer, it’s a totally unnecessary step. But beware: because they’re not diluted, Alessandro’s Martinis, are very strong (another reason to invest in some smaller glasses)!
Tip Four: Use only the best booze
Bad gin has nowhere to hide in a classic Martini. Thus, the quality of the final product has a lot to do with the quality of its components. This isn’t the time to break out the rainy day gin and a dusty bottle of vermouth from who-knows-when.