The Best Martini Is Neither Shaken Nor Stirred
I spoke to acclaimed bartender Alessandro Palazzi about James Bond, why a true Vesper is impossible to make nowadays, and why you shouldn't attempt to drink more than two martinis at Dukes, his famed bar.
Dukes is a veritable institution in old-school London boozing.
Well hidden among the white-walled government buildings of Mayfair, the small, beautifully preserved hotel bar has not changed much over the past hundred years. It features green velvet, old carpets, wood paneling, large oil paintings of red-faced men out on country pursuits, and the best martini in London—and, many would say, the world.
Famed for both its elaborate preparation and theatrical presentation—courtesy of head barman Alessandro Palazzi and his team—the Dukes martini is prepared tableside. And if you're lucky enough to be served by Alessandro, it will probably come with a story or two.
You see, Dukes was where Ian Fleming found his liquid inspiration. Fond of the turbo-strength cocktails, clubby Mayfair ambience, and understated class, the mastermind behind James Bond was a serious drinker. Fleming imbibed, as his biographer John Pearson so memorably described, "in the American way": "Vodka martinis or very brown whiskey sodas would appear late in the day and he would drink rather heavily then… large slugs of alcohol, often gin, [and] big martinis that were virtually iced gin."
You cannot make Fleming's Vesper anymore. Vodka was different, the gin was different, and they stopped making true Kina Lillet in 1939. They completely changed the profile of the drink.
A great bar is only as great as its head barman, however. Luckily for Dukes, Palazzi is one of the best. Born in Italy and now entering his 40th year in the industry, he has worked in such famed establishments as the Berkley Hotel in London, the Ritz in Paris, and Great Eastern on Liverpool Street.
MUNCHIES caught up with Palazzi in Dukes Bar to talk tradition, innovation, and his famous "two martini"rule.
MUNCHIES: Hi, Alessandro. Tell me about the famous Vesper martini. Alessandro Palazzi: In Casino Royale, the first Bond novel, there is the love story between Bond and Vesper [Lynd]. A lot of people confuse the word "Vesper"with the motorbike, but Fleming named the drink after the girl. In the book, he says to the bartender, "Make me a Martini: half a measure of Kina Lillet, one part of vodka, three parts of Gordon's gin, shaken vigorously. And then finish with a twist of lemon." But at that time, the mix of gin and vodka was never done. He created a recipe which deliberately broke the rules.
When Fleming was younger, he was a journalist for a short time and was sent to Russia, where he drank vodka. The vodka he drank would have been unfiltered. It was thicker—quite a different drink to the vodka we drink now. Only the wealthy in Russia had access to quality vodka. Fleming helped to popularise vodka; after the success of the films, everybody wanted to drink vodka. But you cannot make Fleming's Vesper anymore. Vodka was different, the gin was different, and they stopped making true Kina Lillet in 1939. They completely changed the profile of the drink.
So my Vesper is my interpretation, my tribute to Fleming. It is made like this: The glass is frozen—a martini has to be very cold. Then a drop of Angostura bitters. The vermouth we use is English. I work with Sacred distillery in Highgate, and the botanicals used come from the UK. The vodka is a Polish vodka called Potoski. This is because when Fleming was a chief commander in the Naval Office during the war, a beautiful Polish lady impressed him very much; she crossed enemy lines in order to spy for England. So, the vodka I use for the Vesper is Polish.
Now England is laughing; because in France and Italy, cocktail culture has not progressed.
The gin comes from Berry Brothers. This is a traditional gin of the kind that Fleming would have had. This one is 46 percent and there are only six botanicals. It is a simple, strong, old-style gin. Berry Brothers are based here in St. James. They have been around for hundreds of years, and St. James was, of course, Mr. Fleming's playground. I wanted something where the soul of Fleming comes through in the drink.
Lastly, instead of a lemon, I use an organic orange. Zest the oil onto the top, then add the peel. Look at the magic—you see the oil on top of the drink? The smell of it? This gives it a different flavour: Because the alcohol has been frozen, it allows the orange oil to float on top. As you drink, the smell of orange comes through. That is how you can distinguish a good martini from bad. If you go to a bar and the first thing you get is a strong smell of alcohol, I'd be advised to ask the bartender to remake it.
What do you enjoy about working in London? London is special. When I used to go back home to Italy or France and say that I'd been working in London, people used to take the mickey and I used to resent it. But now England is laughing; because in France and Italy, cocktail culture has not progressed.
With the cocktail culture here, people are open-minded. When I first came here in the 70s, the only way you could get a decent cocktail was in a five-star hotel, and most of them were run by Italian bartenders. Now you can go to Brixton, Hackney, Clapham and you will find an amazing bartender and amazing bar. The English are prepared to try something new.
And this is what I love about Fleming, too. He breaks the rules.
How about the culture at Dukes? It is a bar with some serious heritage. We're a classic bar and we have to stay classic, but also innovate. When I took over, I took away the dress code. Before, you had to come in with a jacket and tie—no jeans allowed. I'm more interested in the human factor than in the way that somebody is dressed, though. There was some resentment from some of the older customers. But you have to understand that things change. In any case, a pair of jeans today can cost as much as three suits (laughs).
But it is not about money; it is about how people carry themselves. We have no music; there is no food. No coffee or tea. It is a proper bar. Only drink. And also, it is a good value drink. The drink that I just made for you, that contains five shots of pure alcohol. It costs £18.50—not cheap—but if you went into a pub and asked them to give you five shots of that quality, it would cost you more.
He gave me a dirty look and said, 'Don't tell me how to drink a martini.' But as soon as he stood up, he went down like a ton of bricks.
You have a famous "two martini" rule, correct? The old money—the old-school clientele—were more used to drinking. They drank in the mornings; they drank more, but they were more subtle with drinking. Take the journalists. They would go out to lunch and drink, but they knew how to drink. They might fall over now and again, but they could always maintain the persona, the face. When the bar was made more accessible, a lot of the new people we had coming in did not understand how strong the martini can be.
We had people trying to drink it in five minutes—they didn't have a clue. We want people to take their time. Our martini will not only stay cold, but also change over time. I want people to take their time. Frozen alcohol can numb you; you drink it faster and then get the effect afterwards. Some of the older customers, we will do a third martini for them, but there are not so many of them. And that is because I know that they can handle it.
One time, this German bank manager came in—big finance guy. He drank one in about five minutes and ordered a second one, and I said, "Sir, don't take me wrong, but please take your time because your restaurant is booked. You still have plenty of time." He gave me a dirty look and said, "Don't tell me how to drink a martini," and ordered another and drank it even faster. But as soon as he stood up, he went down like a ton of bricks. He had an empty stomach, he was a small guy, and he drank it too quickly.
I've got to ask your view on mixing. Because you neither shake nor stir your martini. You don't need to shake or stir a martini. It's a very powerful phrase, but in those days there was a lot of etiquette in drinking. Bond comes in and he asks for martini "shaken, not stirred," but that is because Bond breaks all the rules—with woman and food and everything. But it also shows how such a small sentence becomes such a powerful sentence. If we're talking technically, the reason that you would not shake it is that you would break the ice, diluting the drink and making it cloudy. You would not want this in a martini or a Manhattan. Nobody has ever asked, in my career, for a shaken Manhattan.
I'm a fan of KRS One, Pharcyde, Roots Manuva. A lot of people are surprised by that.
But my view is that you have to have an open mind; if somebody asks for a martini shaken, like Bond, I will do it for them. I personally don't like a dirty martini, but if you ask me for a dirty Martini I will make you one. One of my most famous is the white truffle Martini. If I did this 30 years ago, I would have been shot outside Buckingham Palace. It would have been taboo.
What do you drink on your average Friday night after work? A Manhattan. Bourbon, Angostura bitters, red vermouth, no ice, straight up, very cold. The other drink that I love is a Negroni.
London has changed a huge amount over the past decade. How have you seen Dukes grow in this time? You see younger people really knowing what they are drinking. If you want to go out at night, you can find whatever you're looking for.
Some people might find it strange having younger customers that know a lot about gin, for example. But the way I see it, it's like me with music. I love hip-hop. Some people might find that odd. But there is acceptance in England. I'm a fan of KRS One, Pharcyde, Roots Manuva. A lot of people are surprised by that. I love Roots Manuva; it is pure poetry. That is why I like KRS One, too. Like drinks, there should not be any barrier. We all share the same passion at Dukes. I'm a bartender for life. I'm not going to go off and become an ambassador or something. I'm a bartender.
Thanks for speaking with us, Alessandro.