It was 2:30 on a grey Friday afternoon in London. Perfect Martini weather. The small tables in the bar at Dukes Hotel all have “reserved” signs on them. Allessandro Palazzi the bartender sizes you up when you come in – if you are a serious drinker he has a table already reserved for you! Those wandering in for a glass of wine or some such lesser substance are quietly shown to another room elsewhere in this tiny jewel of a hotel in St James’s.
The lore of this place is fabulous. Ian Fleming wrote parts of Casino Royale while seated at the bar here in 1953. Legend has it that he invented the phrase “shaken not stirred” whilst imbibing here. The Vesper Martini (named after the female character Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale) was also invented here. The barman’s cart contains small bottles of vermouth flavoured with different spices and angostura bitters that go into the famous Vesper Martini. Sadly Kina Lillet, an essential ingredient of the Vesper Martini (Gin, Vodka, Kina Lillet and a Lemon twist) is no longer manufactured – the barmen at Dukes use Lillet Blanc with a drop of Angostura bitters instead.
Two frosted martini glasses are brought forth in the cart. A few drops of Sacred Vermouth (brewed specially for Duke’s at the home of Dan Hart in Highgate, London) are placed in the glasses, swirled around and shaken onto the carpet (what stories that carpet must have to tell!). We started with Imperial Vodka, a Russian premium made by the folks who also sell Russian Standard. At Duke’s all the vodkas are kept in the freezer and served ice cold. Imperial is a nice drink with layered vanilla notes. Our next martini is an all British affair. The Sacred vermouth is blended this time with William Chase’s Herefordshire potato vodka. Chase made his money with Tyrrell’s potato crisps and stayed with the spud for his next entrepreneurial venture. Chase vodka is sublime in a martini, thicker in viscosity to a grain vodka with a creamy, full body. Allessandro the bartender limits his clients to two martinis. He has been known to indulge me in more but I had an entire weekend’s drinking ahead of me….