I’m in London this week for business and had the opportunity to spend an evening in the bar at the Dukes Hotel in Mayfair. This is the bar that Ian Fleming frequented during World War II (as he walked between his home and government workplace) and where the classic James Bond Martini was born. According to the bar’s website, this may, in fact, be where the classic line “shaken, not stirred” was originated.
As if to add a stamp of authenticity to the surroundings, as you enter the bar, there is a signed picture of Sean Connery on the wall, indicating the way into a place steeped in literary history and where the martini is king. For an author and martini drinker like me, this was both a pilgrimage and a pleasure.
The ambiance of the bar was British, intimate, comfortable and very understated. Not like the loud bars or pubs we’ve all seen. Conversations were kept appropriately low in volume and I could actually hear the people at my table without their needing to raise their voices. Correspondingly, I could not hear conversations at nearby tables which added to the intimacy of the place. I wore a sports jacket and slacks and felt a little under dressed – most of the other male patrons wore suits and ties. Lesson learned for next time.
There are ten different martinis on the menu, some of which carry names from the Bond books, like “Ian Fleming’s Classic Vesper,” “Tiger Tanaka,” “Le Chiffre,” and “Odd Job.” Of course, Duke’s also provides classic gin and vodka martinis for purists like me. While non-martini drinks are expertly crafted at the bar and delivered in frosted glasses, the martinis are concocted table side on the “legendary Duke’s trolley.” The barman rolls a wheeled cart to the table with fruit and garnishes and then brings glasses and bottles of gin/vodka to the table which have obviously come right from the freezer. Then, he mixes the drink in front of you as he talks you through the ingredients. I’ve been in too many bars to count all over the world and have had more martinis than I can keep track of but this is the only place where I have seen service and expertise like this.
I started with “Ian Fleming’s Classic Vesper” which is comprised of No. 3 Gin, Polacki vodka, Angostura bitters, and Sacred Dukes Exclusive Amber Vermouth. It is also served with a slice of orange peel that provides an element which appeals both the eye and the palate. Apparently, this martini has gin and vodka in it because Vesper was a double agent and the vodka is Polish because she was a Polish double agent. This drink was superb. The combination of flavors was a treat for the tongue and it went down very smoothly with no aftertaste.
I followed the “The Vesper” with the Duke’s Gin Martini, which apparently is the martini that Ian Fleming really drank. The Gin Martini consists of Plymouth Gin, Sacred Dukes Extra Dry Vermouth and lemon zest. The barman asked me how dry I wanted it and I replied “very dry” which resulted in his barely splashing the glass with vermouth in a move that was deftly and perfectly executed. In contrast to “The Vesper,” the Gin martini was crisp and clean and while I had never had Plymouth Gin before, it was delightful to taste. I may have to start looking for it back in the US.
The head barman’s name is Alessandro Palazzi and he’s the gentleman whose picture appears above. When we walked into the bar, all six of us, the place was crowded and there was obviously no where to sit or stand. We asked if we could wait for a table in the lobby and he led us there. After about thirty minutes he led us into the lounge and seated us in a place with two tables and six chairs but after another party left, he reseated us at a better table. While I’m sure he would have taken care of us in a gentlemanly fashion regardless of how we behaved, the fact that we didn’t act like loud and obnoxious Americans no doubt helped our case. Alessandro was a superb host – checking on us repeatedly and ensuring we were taken care of and continually thanking us for our patience. I’ve never been better looked after in a bar. Here’s a quote from Alessandro about martinis that I totally agree with:
“There are already too many rules to remember in life, so your Martini shouldn’t come with a set of instructions as well. Get to know your Martini. If want to shake it, go right ahead! If you prefer it with a splash of bitters and a half a twist of Amalfi lemon, then enjoy. Many of these variations may not fit the mould of what’s classically thought to be a Martini, but if you love it a certain way, that’s what makes in the most memorable, and perfect drink of all.”
On that note, I’ll close this post with my recipe for the perfect martini. It requires dry vermouth, Bombay Sapphire Gin (although if there’s a brand you like better – feel free to substitute) and a slice of lime. I start with martini glasses chilled in the freezer and I splash a little vermouth in the glass, swirl it around and then dump it out. There should be a trace of vermouth that remains on the bottom and sides of the glass. Then, I take the slice of lime, run it around the rim of the glass and then squeeze it slightly into the glass before dropping it into the glass. Finally, I pour the gin into a shaker, with a lot of ice, and shake very, very hard. Immediately after shaking, I pour the gin into the glass and if I’ve done well, the gin will be frosty with ice crystals. Then I drink it – right away. We’ll call this recipe the “Broyler Martini.” I’ll explain the handle later. Maybe…..