Two Martinis at Dukes, London
Dukes is a small bar in the same way that Fenway is small ballpark or that Humphrey Bogart, perhaps the largest man onscreen, was only 5’8’’. Its global reputation and stature completely transcend its physical constraints. To anyone who has successfully meandered around the clubland-lined streets of St. James in search of it Dukes is renowned as the font from which the world’s best Martinis flow. The Martini itself as a cocktail is an icon: if perfection is complexity in its simplest form then the Martini must be the most perfect of all things. H. L. Mencken, the notably cantankerous American critic, proclaimed that the Martini was America’s greatest gift to civilisation. Perhaps the most American of writers, (and Martini-lover himself) Ernest Hemingway had his Farewall to Arms protagonist, Frederic Henry, announce after consuming a round of Martinis, that ”I had never tasted anything so cool and clean. They made me feel civilized.” It is fitting given the history of Dukes that it was an Italian barman who mixed those Martinis for Henry in the great American novel. For close to forty years a succession of Italian maestros have been similarly serving America’s great gift to the world back to it from the lyric little bandbox that is Dukes Bar. Indeed it was in response to a challenging request from American reporter Stanton Delaplane that Salvatore Calabrese, invented the "Direct Martini" — that coolest and cleanest version of the form — at Dukes in 1985. Delaplane, whilst staying at the hotel, had asked Salvatore, then Head Bartender, for a “very, very dry and very, very cold Martini”. Ultimately it is the proportion of pure gin in a Martini that determines how dry the Martini is — a higher proportion of vermouth results in a wetter Martini. Now, as any Martini aficionado (or indeed mere scientist) will tell you, introducing enough ice contact vital to achieve extreme cold will inevitably result in dilution of the gin—that and the introduction of the vermouth being an obvious obstacle to the extreme dryness requested. For four successive days Calabrese tussled with the problem achieving either dryness or coldness—but never both—until he reached an epiphany. To answer the needs of his customer Calabrese froze both the glass that the Martini was to be served in and the gin itself therefore eliminating the need for ice entirely. To perfectly control the amount of vermouth this was decanted into a bitters bottle and the slightest touch added like seasoning directly to the glass. The elimination of stirring—or indeed shaking—to bring the Martini to the required temperature was quite brilliantly revolutionary. Calabrese himself continues to recognise this too—claiming when the subject arises that God invented the world in five days whereas it only took him four to invent the perfect Martini. Delaplane was even more impressed and he rewarded Dukes and Salvatore with global acclaim; quickly reporting back to his American audience that Dukes served the best Martini in England. Cocktail loving Americans have made Dukes a key part of their itinerary if not their UK-base for their stay entirely ever since.
With Delaplane’s recommendation, and the many others that inevitably followed, Calabrese found the success his efforts deserved. As a obvious innovator and with an entrepreneurial spirit he further looked to extend the bars potential income despite its relatively few tables. In doing so he become so well known for the incredibly rare Cognacs which he would discover and to serve to guest that he was eventually tempted away to continue and refine that particular innovation at the Lanesborough Hotel's Library Bar when it opened in 1994. Upon his departure the mantle for Dukes was passed to Gilberto Preti who Salvatore had hired himself in 1988.
Through his actions Gilberto Preti exhibited that he was a clear successor. In the same year that the Hemingway Bar opened in Paris, obviously elevated by it’s own association with that noted imbiber, Preti took over and established his own legacy whilst indelibly twinning Dukes with its own literary figurehead (and perhaps the only person who could sell more cocktails to men than Hemingway). In an horological twist too, like the Hemingway Bar which opened 50 years after Hemingway’s liberation of the Ritz Paris and its bar in 1944, Duke’s could lay claim to the fact that it opened in 1908 — Ian Fleming’s birth year. Duke’s history and location in what is quite distinctly the heart of the most gentlemanly, and therefore Fleming-esque part of London, lent to its credence and clear association too.
Most notably for serious Martini and James Bond aficionados however Gilberto Preti’s name and that of the bar became synonymous with the Vesper under his direction. The Vesper, invented by James Bond in Casino Royale, is a suitably roguish form of the Martini: Against traditional convention it contains both gin and vodka and, in its original form, Kina Lillet—a bitter quinine infused vermouth. The Vesper was first concocted in the audience of an American—Bond’s closest ally Felix Leiter:
'A dry martini,' he said. 'One. In a deep champagne goblet.'
'Just a moment. Three measures of Gordon's, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it's ice-cold, then add a large thin slice of lemon peel. Got it?'
'Certainly, monsieur.' The barman seemed pleased with the idea.
'Gosh, that's certainly a drink,' said Leiter.
Bond laughed. 'When I'm...er...concentrating,' he explained, 'I never have more than one drink before dinner. But I do like that one to be large and very strong and very cold and very well-made. I hate small portions of anything, particularly when they taste bad. This drink's my own invention. I'm going to patent it when I can think of a good name'
He watched carefully as the deep glass became frosted with the pale golden drink, slightly aerated by the bruising of the shaker. He reached for it and took a long sip.
'Excellent,' he said to the barman, 'but if you can get a vodka made with grain instead of potatoes, you will find it still better.'
'Mais n'enculons pas des mouches,' he added in an aside to the barman. The barman grinned.
'That's a vulgar way of saying ''we won't split hairs'','explained Bond.
But Leiter was still interested in Bond's drink.
'You certainly think things out,' he said with amusement as they carried their glasses to a corner of the room.
Bond eventually names the drink after double-agent Vesper Lynd.
Unfortunately for purists, but perhaps fortuitous for innovation, Kina Lillet was effectively discontinued in 1986 and the alcohol content of Gordon’s gin was reduced in 1992. Both could have killed off the Vesper if not for Preti’s intervention. Around the time of his succession Preti successfully re-formulated and re-popularised the drink, reinventing the Vesper for a willing and captivated audience of fans.
Another of Preti’s Duke’s inventions was the now famous Martini trolley. There are notably no seats at the bar in Dukes, in an act of ultimate civility and democracy, the bar is instead brought to each customer: the Duke’s rosewood trolley wheeled table-to-table adorned with fresh citrus, the bitter bottles full of vermouth, replenished with frozen base spirit and glass for each serving. Another potential legacy of Preti’s is the infamous two Martini limit, a sign of the civility that Duke’s has become renowned for. Preti — borrowing a quote from a film — was known to explain that “a Martini is like a woman’s breast — one is not enough, two is perfect but three is too many.”
Preti guided the bar for 13 years until his departure. Alessandro Palazzi the third in this great Italian Triumvirate, and current head-bartender of Dukes, took over in 2007. If the Martini is perfection then the most perfect of drinks has found it’s ultimate perfectionist under Alessandro. It is clear to guests that Alessandro, like Bond in Casino Royale, “thinks things out”. If it took Calabrese four days to create the Martini that in many ways started it all then Alessandro has dedicated no less care or desire in truly perfecting both this original Duke’s Martini and Preti’s Vesper Martini throughout his entire tenure. In the bar itself Alessandro has not only retained all the best elements of his predecessors but has refined them further too. Like Calabrese — who would notably procure rare spirits — Alessandro has sought out producers of spirits specifically to enhance the drinks that Dukes is most renowned for. Alessandro’s bitter bottles are filled with vermouth from Sacred, a London producer who, like Morlands of Grosvenor Street — cigaratte supplier to Bond — blend a custom vermouth exactly to Alessandro's own particular requirements. The venerable St. James institution, Berry Bros & Rudd (wine-merchant to Ian Fleming himself no doubt) produce the No. 3 Gin that is often poured — from a frozen bottle of course by Palazzi's hand. The No.3 bottle itself, once deep green has just been re-designed, and is now ribbed in way that is perhaps even more reminiscent of the bonnet of a Bentley Blower — the original Bond car in Fleming's Casino Royale. The vodka chosen for the Vesper is Potocki from Poland — a grain based version of course — chosen in honour of Polish-born Krystyna Skarbek, also known by her naturalised name of Christine Granville, but more widely known by the character that she inspired — Vesper Lynd. This focus on refinement and detail even extends to the lemons which sit atop the trolley waiting to be used — these are the best in the world, imported from the Amalfi coast.
When you see an Instagram post of a Dukes Martini made by Alessandro or his tight-knit team, long before you might recognise the blue-capitalised serif-lettering on the napkin coaster underneath, you will know for certain it is a Dukes Martini. Bond’s “long thin slice of lemon” has never been presented so impeccably—seemingly adorning the glass at a perfect angle and simultaneously crowning the spectacular achievement inside like a miniature Philip Treacy. Under Alessandro’s hand the Dukes Martini is instantly recognisable and so completely inimitable. As Leiter put it: "That's certainly a drink"
Alessandro's pursuit of perfection at Dukes Bar is not strained or rushed, it is a considered and precise evolution towards civility and refined simplicity, so fitting of the Martini itself.