The Dukes Bar Martini
He’d flown in on Sunday. Still jet-lagged, it was his fourth business trip this month. Whilst he enjoyed the chance to travel and discover, like all the best things in life, he felt that moderation was key and was not ashamed to say that he was longing for home. His host, hearing him speak of his love of martinis, insisted however that he come out for the evening. “I’m taking you to Dukes Bar – everyone says it’s the best martini anywhere.” He’d drank martinis almost everywhere however. He’d drank enough martinis around the world to know that there was no such thing. That the martini, perhaps more than any other, was a drink of personal preference. Every drinker of the martini has his own recipe, often sipped first in bars but refined in the comfort of home. His own martini was the work of many years: Plymouth gin; four-to-one with Dolin vermouth; stirred until ice cold; long slice of lemon peel. For a time his drinks cabinet overflowed with mis-matched gin bottles but Plymouth was what he’d settled on. He liked its soft, rounded character which seemed to offset the cutting, sharp, icy cold that he found vital in a martini. It was a study in distinct contrasts with both benefitting from the comparison. Each as different in the mind and to the senses as black and white, creating a faceted jewel in the glass that you could only see by tasting.
Keen to share the result of his interest he would serve his martini to guests, watching closely as they took that first taste. In bars he would offer his recipe verbally to the bartender and await some sign of sodality in the hope that the bartender might be a fellow martini-lover, someone who took the drink as seriously as he did. The best bartender’s acknowledged his request, and following his instructions provided varying degrees of the exacting perfection he was used to. The worst sadly nodded courteously in appeasement before offering him a martini that bore no resemblance to what he’d asked for. He’d come to the realisation that modern hospitality can too often mean saying yes nicely and not asking questions – great for hospitality but bad for martinis. He’d heard of a man who carried calling cards printed with his specific drinks order – a method that implied a certain business-like seriousness that even he was not quite at yet.
Walking up the steps and through the door of the hotel they turned right to enter Dukes Bar itself. A white-jacketed bartender stepped out from behind the bar and greeted them kindly, before offering each of them a comfortably deep, navy velvet club chair around corner table near the window. “My friend hopes you have Plymouth Gin” his host said with a smile, seemingly casting the bartender a challenge before they had even sat down. “Ah, of course we do.” the bartender said with a confident assurance that he liked already. In order to soften the barb and extend a handshake to the bartender and his profession he explained “Sorry, I have a reputation amongst friends for being particular. I drink a martini every day at home – Plymouth; four-to-one with Dolin; very, very cold with a slice.” The bartender smiled knowingly, and responded with a quiet, deep professionalism that he had not experienced at even his favourite bars before. “Plymouth is a very good gin sir. Today however is not every day – today you are at Dukes Bar. I would be happy to make you a Plymouth martini but, if you will let me, I will make you something very special that I think you might like even more.” This was altogether different – as cool and refined a response as the drink that he loved. He liked this very much indeed, it was hospitality in its purest form, perhaps as it should be. He willingly accepted the recommendation, as did his host. Whilst the bartender excused himself to attend to their order he surveyed the surroundings. It was almost unlike any so-called great bar he’d been in. It was comfortable, club-like, but with limited sight lines and human in scale it was homely too. The bartender returned pushing a drinks trolley. The linen on top adorned with large fresh lemons, bright oranges, three bitters bottles and two martini glasses so cold they were cloudy in the warmth of the bar itself. In the centre next to the glasses sat a low-squat bottle decorated with a blue dot just visible through a frosty cloudiness of its own. The bottle was so frozen in fact that it was as though it was a new discovery found within some deep ice – fittingly it was completely unfamiliar to him. The bartender, acknowledging his curiosity, explained “This is Procera Gin from Kenya. The maker is a friend who drinks here at Dukes. It is made with many African botanicals including a rare juniper. It has a very particular taste that I think you might enjoy.” With a clear sense of agreement between them, the bartender proceeded to pick up each of the slowly thawing glasses pouring in a few drops of something amber from a bitters bottle. “This is Sacred vermouth. It is made for me by a wonderful distillery in Highgate. It is different to your Dolin but excellent. I use just enough to coat the inside” he said, carefully twisting each glass around between his fingers before shaking the loose contents onto the blue patterned carpet, the whole act completed with such reassuring skill it could only be honed from repetition. Releasing the stopper from the gin he held the bottom of the bottle’s base between his fingers and extended his arm over each glass, his cufflinks revealing themselves in the process. The gin, still freezing, passed thickly over bottle’s short neck, slowly filling each glass in turn until the bartender stopped the pour as it reached the edge of each rim perfectly. The top of the glass, from rim to rim formed a completely flat surface, gone was the typical line of spirit lower than the rim to detract visually from the clear angular form of the drink itself – it was a detail that in thousands of martinis he’d not considered until now. A large lemon with a green leaf still attached, was taken from the bowl on the trolley, a long a slice of peel cut before being squeezed lengthways in a cloud of spray over the still viscose gin, droplets of oil resting upon and decorating the surface like stars across a clear midnight sky. The peel was then folded deftly along the bartenders index fingers before being twisted at each end with great dexterity to release more fresh oils for anointing each glass’ rim. Once complete it was placed inside the drink at an angle reminiscent a piece of the finest women’s millenary at Royal Ascot, adding a touch of soft elegance. The second glass was finished in the same manner and a drinks napkin was placed in front of each guest. The martinis now complete were transferred from the trolley and placed before them without any of the precious liquid inside spilling over the edge. It was masterful to witness.
As the bartender waited, he raised the glass to take a sip. The distinct fresh scent of the lemon hit his senses first before the icy–cool gin passed through his lips and over his tongue in a sensation that was familiar, completely to his liking but altogether new and distinct. “That’s the best martini I’ve ever had.” he said.
Photography kindly provided by The Adesso Group