The bar at Dukes Hotel is a London institution. The same could be said about the head bartender, Alessandro Palazzi, who talks to us about Ian Fleming, moving with the times, and what is and isn’t a Martini.
Dukes Hotel isn’t easy to find. Located just off St James’s Street, the first time I went there, it felt like I had been initiated into one of London’s great secrets. According to Alessandro Palazzi, the dapper Italian gentleman who runs the bar, “we are hidden away, so it’s a destination place. It’s like a club, but without being a club.” Following stints at the Ritz in Paris, The Great Eastern Hotel (now Andaz), and running his own bar in Perugia (“a big mistake” as he puts it), Palazzi took over at Dukes 13 years ago from Gilberto Preti, who himself was handed the baton by Salvatore Calabrese. You don’t have to be Italian to work at Duke’s but it certainly helps: “Maurizio, my assistant, he’s been with me 13 years. Then I have another gentleman, Enrico, as well, who’s been thirteen years,” Palazzi told me.
It might surprise people who find Dukes a bit old-fashioned, but the first thing Palazzi did when he took over was to relax the dress code. Previously it was jackets and ties; now it’s just smart casual. He told me that they lost some of their old customers when he took over and modernised the place. Other changes have also gone down badly. “One lady, an important politician, complained when we removed the awful green carpet,” he said.
Others, however, have embraced the changes. “We have a lot of old customers who actually introduced their children and they carry on coming,” he continues. We still have lots of old customers, because they come here for the drink and the building.” It was a different world when Palazzi first came to London in the 1970s: you would be sacked if you were seen in hotel bars like the Savoy. Customers shouldn’t see the staff out drinking. The clientele of Dukes, according to Palazzi, was dominated by politicians and the military, like its most famous customer, Ian Fleming. “Some people think that I used to serve him! I’m not that old,” Palazzi said. “Now you have people in the arts and music. And also younger people now, because this place has become fashionable. People come for their first date, and people propose here because of the place,” he told me. According to Palazzi, younger customers are happy to spend money. “People don’t put money in the bank anymore because they might go bankrupt.”
Duke’s certainly isn’t cheap, at £22 for a Martini. But Palazzi defends the prices: “You get five shots of premium gin, Amalfi lemon, Sicilian olives, snacks, and if you want you can buy one drink and have the table all night.” He compares it to a Savile Row suit. There’s no doubt that Palazzi has a rare gift for making his customers feel special. He prides himself on treating everyone the same and told me a story about turning away a famous actress who wanted to barge the queue. “We don’t have the bling-bling”, he told me. “We probably sell a bottle of Krug or Cristal every six or seven years. We don’t have here that type of clientele. That’s why a lot of people like to come here as well. There’s no showing off, everybody’s the same.”
Customers come for the beautifully-prepared cocktails prepared on a trolley at the table. Palazzi sees being a bartender as a noble vocation. “Bartenders now, they start as a bartender and then they want to become brand ambassador. I grew up in Italy; I knew I wanted to be a bartender for the rest of my life.” In the past, places like Dukes and The American Bar at the Savoy were the only places to get classic cocktails but now, “there has been a bar revolution in London and outside London, in Leeds, in Manchester. You have more and more amazing bars.”
Duke’s has had to move with the times, but do it in its own way. Smoky domes, flames and DJs wouldn’t be quite right. “When I took over the menu was boring”, Palazzi said, “when I say boring, we have the usual cocktails, there was nothing there.” So Palazzi came up with a list inspired by Dukes’ most famous customer, Ian Fleming, author of the James Bond books. There’s a Tiger Tanaka, a Kissy Suzuki and Palazzi’s own take on the Vesper using Sacred vermouth, Berry Bros’s No. 3 Gin, and Polish vodka. Sadly, Palazzi told me, “I cannot use the name Fleming anymore, because they [the Fleming estate] want money.”
Another of Palazzi’s innovations was introducing new kinds of gin. “I knew gin was going to become a big thing,” he said. He was an early supporter of Sacred but his new favourite is the superb (and pricey) Procera Gin from Kenya. So, when the time came to have a drink, he suggested a Martini made with this special gin. When I demurred, as I didn’t think I could manage a full Dukes Martini at 3pm, he suggested a “Martini-ini.”
Out came the famous trolley, which was introduced by Palazzi’s predecessor. Then the Sacred vermouth. Palazzi told me that the ritual of putting it in the glass and then throwing it on the floor began as a joke, but it’s now become his trademark. As I wanted a wetter Martini, mine stayed firmly in the glass. Next the frozen gin and then the heady scent of Amalfi lemon, the droplets of oil floating in the thick cold gin.
Palazzi has strong views on what and what isn’t a Martini. “For me, a Martini is a drink which has to be strong and three ingredients,” he said. “An Espresso Martini is not really a Martini. A Martini is supposed to be all alcohol. It’s the most simple cocktail to make: it’s the temperature, the quality ingredients, the lemon. There’s the vermouth, gin or vodka, and the oil. That’s what a Martini is.”
Time to take a sip; it’s the lemon that dominates at first followed by the thick, unctuous flavour of the frozen gin tempered with a little vermouth. It’s delicious, of course, but you can’t separate the taste from the escapism, the sense of occasion and Palazzi’s hospitality. Maybe I will have another