Dukes Bar – The Martini that Inspired Ian Fleming

An oasis of classy, clubby and unpretentious charm & home to one of the best martinis in the world

An oasis of classy, clubby and unpretentious charm & home to one of the best martinis in the world

A few years ago, I got taken to the bar at Dukes Hotel for drinks after work with an old colleague. Dukes is one of the many wonderful hidden gems in London, off of St James’s Street down a little road and through a tiny courtyard. Why are so many of the great places in the UK so hidden, I often wonder. Anyway, Dukes is a discreet and understated 5-star hotel that exudes a traditional aura. The bar has historically attracted a lot of wealthy American executives travelling on business in London and also a Mayfair banking / hedge fund set. These days the crowd is slightly more mixed and the bar is busy, pretty much without fail, on weekdays after work.

So what’s the big deal?

Well, Dukes arguably serve the best martini in London and possibly one of the best in the world. In fact, legend has it that Ian Fleming himself got the inspiration for the ‘shaken, not stirred’ line used in the Bond films, from his time spent drinking at Dukes. Before going to Dukes, I really couldn’t stomach martinis. I am ashamedly quite a lightweight when it comes to hard alcoholic drinks (wine is definitely more my thing) and typically go for the sweeter side of the cocktail scale. However, once I had a classic dry vodka martini at Dukes, that all changed. Since my ‘virgin’ cocktail at Dukes, I have returned a number of times. In fact, recently, I have been organizing a monthly night at Dukes after work with a group of friends. We had one of our rendezvous earlier this week, and I thought it high time for a post about this wonderful oasis of class.

When you step into Dukes bar, you will most likely be greeted by Alessandro Palazzi, a consummate and immediately charming Italian host who is without a doubt one of the leading barmen in London. He has worked all over the world in some of the most exclusive places. In 2001, he worked at Dukes bar under the former lead barman Gilberto Preti, and then went onto roles at The Ritz , The Mandarin Oriental and The Great Eastern Hotel (now Andaz) in London, before taking the helm at Dukes again in 2007. You can always be assured of receiving a warm, professional and personal service from Alessandro and the three other Italian waiters that work with him. The bar was completely redesigned in the summer of 2007, and features dark navy blue velvet chairs and silk curtains. The small tables are dark mahogany, as is the bar, the curtains are silk and the fireplace is marble. Overall, it is a classic, refined and clubby atmosphere without ever being in danger of being pretentious or stuffy.

If you are there for the first time, I definitely recommend one of their classic martinis (gin or vodka – choose your poison). All of the martinis are made fresh in front of you. A small wooden trolley is wheeled out and parked besides your table while your waiter prepares it for you. And, if you want, they will explain the difference between the Dukes version of whatever drink they’re making and other pretenders to the throne. My personal favorite is the Dukes Vodka Martini. This consists of Potocki Vodka (Polish), which has been frozen at a very low temperature for a minimum of 24 hours. First, 3 drops of extra dry vermouth are put into the cold martini glass. Then the Potocki is added. Next, the waiter slices the peel of a fresh lemon off (the lemons are organic and Sicilian), squeezes a few splashes of the lemon oil in the glass, rubs the peel around the edge of the glass and drops the peel into the concoction. Sounds simple, right? Well, the best things in life often are. The key here is that the vodka is ice cold, so no ice cubes are used. Also, it is not shaken or stirred (take that, 007). The result is a perfectly balanced and highly potent drink that you can sip for an hour or so over good conversation with friends. The vodka martini is fresh, cold and transitions between the slightly vanilla flavor of the vodka to a zesty lemon finish which lingers on in your mouth. Another of my favorite drinks is ‘Ian Fleming’s Classic Vesper’, which consists of Crown Jewel gin, Potocki vodka, Angostura bitters and Lillet. Also good is the ‘Strangeways’, which is made up of Hendrik’s gin, fresh cucumber, elderflower and lemon. I would like to reiterate the strength of these drinks – one or two is certainly more than enough on an empty stomach. At least for lightweights like me.

Oh, and speaking of stomachs, be forewarned that there is not that much food on offer at the bar in the evening, but they do ply you 3 small silver bowls of nibbles that are constantly refreshed throughout your drinking. One contains small, crisp disc-shaped crackers; another houses a variety of salted nuts; and the third is home to some very nice, fresh green olives which I understand to be imported from Puglia.

The Imperiale 1811: one of the many rare & exotic liquers on hand at Dukes

The Imperiale 1811: one of the many rare & exotic liquers on hand at Dukes

Another nice feature of Dukes is the fact that they have quite a collection of rare cognacs. On our last visit, our waiter brought out a selection of them for us to gaze at and sniff. Most impressive are the Bignon 1800 and the Imperiale 1811. Yes, they are really that old, and the bouquets are really unbelievable, especially on the Imperiale. We told Alessandro earlier this year that if our companies have decent years, we will come in early 2010 and have a glass of each of these (I seem to remember the Imperiale is nearly £400 a shot!). But we’ll have to wait and see about that.

So, if you ever fancy a great martini in a refined and gracious setting, with excellent service, head over to Dukes. You probably won’t be able to find it straight away, but I guess that’s part of the fun.

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14 thoughts on “Dukes Bar – The Martini that Inspired Ian Fleming

  1. We love a classic gin martini, made with Bombay Original, no vermouth and 1 jalapeno stuffed olive and of course shaken in silver shaker over Evian ice. Wish we could come to London and experience Duke’s versions. loved your post. best, s

    • Hi, thanks for your comment. That sounds good too! I can’t really purport to be an expert on anything cocktail related, but all I know is that Dukes is the first place where I’ve actually enjoyed a real martini. My brother, who currently lives in NYC, and is quite an expert in this area, came to London a while ago and I took him to Dukes. He said it was one of the best he’d had. Hopefully you can make it some day – if you do, drop me a line! Thanks for visiting my site!

      Best regards,

      LF

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  5. Ruth (my wife) and I stayed a few nights at Dukes about seven or eight years ago. One night we went to the lounge, and ordered a cosmopolitan up and a gin martini up. The waiter (who I must assume was Alessandro) asked what kind of gin I would prefer. There aren’t any gins I don’t like, so I thought for a moment and said “Ten.” I must say, that I had never encountered a waiter (or barman or whatever) quite like this man. He was immaculately groomed, trim, with salt and pepper hair, with a slight Italian accent–the very essence of sophistication, yet he made you feel welcome and significant, as thought you were the only person he had to satisfy or serve, as though you were the only person in the place, although there were many others there. In a few minutes he returned with (and my memory here diverges somewhat from your commentary above) with a small table (not a cart) with hand holds on each side and a lower shelf. On top were two traditional martini glasses, and on the shelf below, bottles, one of Ten and a vodka, plus other items. He gently placed the little table in front of us and began his work. First, he made the cosmo. I don’t remember all the details, except that when he poured the mixed ingredients into the glass it filled right to the brim of the glass. Another drop and it would have poured over the edge. He then lifted the glass and placed it on the little servette (napkin?) in front of Ruth. He didn’t spill a drop! A steadier hand I have never seen. He then proceeded to build the martini. Again, (shaken, not stirred, and, not thinking of 007, I didn’t direct his choice), he poured the mix into the glass up to the very rim, only surface tension holding the meniscus. Then, amazingly, he took the lemon zest and rubbed it around the rim. Not a drop was disturbed or spilled over the edge. He lifted it, and placed it before me without a drop spilled. What a performance! We were awed. I have had a multitude of martinis. Gin on ice tastes like gin on ice around the world. But I have never experienced the level of service art (emphasize: ART) that we experienced at Dukes. That alone justified the expenditure. The munchies were excellent as well, and the room is the ultimate British club ambience–paneled wood, leather chairs, sublte lighting, quiet atmosphere. Then, a young man and his female friend sat down at the next table. We struck up a conversation. He said he had come to Dukes because he had read it was where the best martinis in London were to be found. I didn’t know that about the Dukes, but we had just witnessed it, and were drinking the results. Dukes reputation is well deserved. On a subsequent visit, we enjoyed a repeat experience. Two months ago, we were flying British Airways to Gatwick in route to Marsailles, and the BA magazine had a little item about the best martinis in London–yes, at the Dukes–with a photo of a waiter, who we agreed looked like our waiter, but with a little less hair. When we get back to London, we will go again to Dukes, and hope that Alessandro is still there and that his hand is still steady.

  6. Hi there: )
    Do you know how old Gilberto Preti was when Alessandro Palazzi worked with him in 2001???
    Im not from UK so i couldnt visit the Duke myself(too bad:’( )
    Really enjoy reading your sharing and craving to know more!
    Please response at your convenience.

    • Sorry, I don’t know that. I know he had been working at Dukes for 18 years by 2001, but that’s about it.

      Best regards,

      LF

      • Thanks: )
        Originally i like Martini with Tanqueray Gin, but recently im in love with Vesper Martini, and i checked out Mr.Palazzi ‘s recipe of
        No. 3 Gin ,Potocki Vodka, Sacred vermouth and Angostura Bitters,
        Looks ravishing and really hope i can get to London and visit the Duke myself some day :)

        Truly,
        E

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