Dukes Bar in Mayfair: The perfect martinis that inspired Ian Fleming
From the entrance inwards, it’s clear that Dukes Bar belongs to a distinguished class. Exuding exclusivity and sophistication, the venue is synonymous with martinis. Ian Fleming, creator of the James Bond character who made the tipple famous, used to sit and sip in the dim light of this very room, and it is said that here he coined the iconic “shaken, not stirred” phrase. The place’s identity is similar to a private club – note the dress code and table reservations – but without the pretentiousness.
The solid reputation of this iconic cocktail has grown in the last 35 years or so, since legendary mixologist Salvatore Calabrese took the helm. The “direct martini” – which involves keeping the gin, vodka and glasses in the freezer so as not to have a diluted concoction but a pure mixture – was born with him. Gilberto Preti followed immediately after, before passing on the considerable heritage in 2007 to Alessandro Palazzi, who twisted, re-created and expanded the selection of drinks, leading with his outstanding charisma.
Palazzi is there in person to guide us through the drink selection of the night. A bit overwhelmed by so many variations, we describe our tastes and he matches them with the right concoction, prepared in front of our table. A must-have, and probably the best martini this reviewer has ever had, is the Dukes Vesper. Picking up the bottles from the trolley, the mixologist tells us this particular cocktail has its origin in Fleming’s first novel, Casino Royale, where agent 007 describes exactly how to prepare a Martini Vesper. The Italian’s take on it is made up of Potocki Vodka – honouring Christine Granville, the first Polish-born female spy sent by England – and quite an aromatic N 3 Gin, with six botanicals. When drinking, the first sense we use is smell, Palazzi informs us, and that’s why the final orange touch is so important: the sweet aroma contrasts nicely with the bitter taste of the liquid.
A similar show is offered for Room 39. The preparation begins with drops of vermouth in a cold glass that the bartender theatrically shakes off onto the floor. This performance is fundamentally motivated by the strength of the wine, of which just a splash is needed. Palazzi then mixes in Centerbe liqueur, a robust 70% digestif from Abruzzo; Sacred Gin from Highgate; and thyme liqueur. This time, the zest on the rim is provided by a fragrant lemon from the Amalfi coast. Tinted on the aquamarine spectrum, this cocktail strongly differs from the previous one, but proves an equally exceptional smooth blend.
For similarly heady concoctions, lighter but still masterfully prepared, there is also a prime selection of the other classics, tied again with a fascinating thread of anecdotes. The Negroni Torbato is marked by a peat whisky perfume; the smoky taste is right on point. Dukes French 75 is silky and dainty, a champagne-based tipple featuring – but not saturated with – a pleasing sweet note from the Griottines cherries brought directly from France.
It’s hard to realise how much you are in need of a good martini until sipping one carefully made by Dukes’s maestro. The cocktails alone intrigue and gratify, but the elegant atmosphere and the meticulous treatment of the team are the elements that truly elevate this bar experience.
★★★★★Drinks ▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮Service ▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮
Photos: Filippo L’Astorina
To book a table at Dukes Bar, 35 St James’s Place London SW1A 1NY, call 020 7491 4840 or visit their website here.