“The hotel bar which some say concocts one of the world’s best Martinis” – New York Times talks about Dukes!
There are many great hotels in London. There is a host of memorable boutique hotels in London. There are several with stylish bars in London. There is only one Dukes Bar in the whole world.
One finds Dukes Hotel tucked away in a courtyard off a quiet side street in St James’s. It has the best of addresses, nestled between St James’s Palace and Piccadilly. It’s a beauty in red brick. It’s an icon of period architecture, and even a first glimpse will encourage the visitor to expect something special within; they won’t be disappointed.
The doorman will usher you into a surprisingly small bar. One might expect a venue with such a reputation to be the size of an aircraft hanger, a well-appointed aircraft hanger, admittedly. No, Dukes Bar is bijou, intimate and timeless with dark wood and charcoal-grey upholstery. The bar is well-stocked but it’s the goods on that unique trolley that will focus the mind of all serious Martini aficionados.
One takes a seat (best to reserve) and peruses the extensive menu of classic cocktails, but it would be a gross oversight to order anything, at least on the inaugural visit, other than a Martini – and the tutored will want to try the Vesper Martini. Shortly you will be joined by a barman in a white linen jacket and if you are blessed it will be Alessandro Palazzi who, in his field, is as celebrated as the hotel itself.
This bar was once the favoured watering hole of famed author Ian Fleming. He is most remembered for being the creator of dashing James Bond. There is a rumour that his very name is derived from this corner of the capital: near Bond Street and in St James’s. Not sure how much store to set by that tale, but it leads me to wonder if Miss Moneypenny first drew breath at the stock exchange? Was Dr No inspired by a dodgy practice in Harley Street?
Dukes Bar is said to be the inspiration behind the classic request, ‘shaken, not stirred’, although a Martini here will never be shaken. That would be far too brash and noisy …and it would dilute the alcohol! The aforementioned trolley will park next to your table and it’s a chariot laden with decanters, fruit, bottles of frozen spirits and frosted glasses. The theatre of pouring begins.
Those glasses are standard for this libation in all its delicious chilled guises. The distinctive design is said to have developed to allow the drinker to hold a stem rather than the bowl of the glass, keeping the beverage at the lowest temperature for the longest time. The cone is thought to give the optimum surface area to encourage the maximum bouquet from the spirits and to prevent the ingredients from separating as the drink rests; and this is a cocktail to be savoured rather than gulped.
Alessandro mixes several hundred martinis each night so he has a practised eye and a deft hand. A speciality is that signature ‘Vesper’. No, dear illiterate reader, that isn’t a reference to the nifty Italian motor scooter but obliquely to the time of day – it’s Latin for evening – and absolutely in homage to Vesper Lynd, a character featured in Ian Fleming’s James Bond novel Casino Royale. The Vesper Martini gained popularity after the novel’s publication, and gave rise to the famous ‘shaken, not stirred’ catchphrase immortalised in every James Bond film thereafter. The actual name for the drink, and the recipe, is mentioned on-screen for the first time in the 2006 remake of Casino Royale.
The Vesper is a heady melange of No. 3 London Dry Gin, Lillet Blanc, Angostura bitters, and Potocki vodka. This is a Polish vodka, in keeping with the Iron Curtain-swishing heroes of Fleming’s alter-universe. The dry vermouth is brewed exclusively for Duke’s by Sacred Microdistillery on a residential street in Highgate, a north London neighbourhood. Ian Fleming was evidently a skilled practitioner of the art of tippling and we are the lucky recipients of both his dedicated study and the charm of Alessandro Palazzi. (Interview to follow).
Bar opening times:
Monday to Saturday – 2pm to 11pm
Sunday and Bank Holidays – 4pm to 10.30pm
Dukes Hotel & Bar
St. James’s Place
London SW1A 1NY
Phone: +44 (0)20 7491 4840
Fax: +44 (0)20 7493 1264
For further information and reservations phone: +44 (0)20 7491 4840
Visit Dukes Hotel here
Bar review by Chrissie Walker © 2018