Dukes Hotel: The World’s Best Martini?

Dukes Hotel: The World’s Best Martini?
Photos/Courtesy of Dukes Hotel

No character, real or fictional, is more associated with the love of a good Martini than superspy James Bond. Through dozens of novels and movies (mostly the latter) he quaffs variations on the drink. And while the location doesn’t figure into any of the 007 adventures, you can visit the bar where this preference was born: the lounge at Dukes Hotel in London’s Mayfair. It was here that the spy’s creator, Ian Fleming, jotted his notes for the novels while sipping Martinis.

In fact, the story is that the writer had his first taste of the classic gin and dry vermouth cocktail—served by a waiter in a crisp white jacket and bowtie—while he sat in one of the bar’s velvet chairs. A version of the drink found its way into a famous scene in the first 007 novel, Casino Royale.

In that 1953 book, Bond invents a variation called the Vesper while ordering a Martini. However, it wasn’t until some 30 years later that Dukes became world famous for its renowned presentation. Since then, visitors (both anonymous and famous) have flocked to Dukes for the bar’s Martinis. It’s not hard to believe that the signature Bond phrase “shaken, not stirred” has been uttered here more than a few times.

Dukes Bar Vesper Martini
The Vesper cocktail, inspired by fictional superspy James Bond, is a variation of the Dukes Martini.

It was sometime in the mid-80s that the hotel’s head barman and London legend Salvatore Calabrese invented his “direct Martini” process. Bottles of gin and vodka were stored in a freezer, along with equally chilled glasses, to eliminate the need for ice and thereby any dilution in the drink. Along with the special treatment came an ornate rolling trolley, a huge selection of spirits, and a theatrical tableside preparation that made having a Martini at Dukes such an acclaimed experience.

Calabrese moved on, but the current bar manager Alessandro Palazzi has continued and improved the tradition. While Dukes keeps the original trolley as a piece of history, drinks are now served from a rosewood model custom-designed by Palazzi. A vital part of the show is the application of aperitif.

A classic, deep Martini glass is rinsed with dry white vermouth, custom-made for the hotel by an artisanal English producer to Palazzi’s recipe. The liquid clinging to the glass is then ceremoniously tossed onto the oft-cleaned carpeting. Next you choose from one of 19 different gins on the cart. Or, if you want to forgo tradition and be more like the Bond of the movies, you can pick one of the dozen offered vodkas.

Palazzi’s final touch is a slice of peel from a particular Italian variety of lemon he imports from the Amalfi Coast—non-waxed and organic, to maximize aroma. Palazzi squeezes a bit of oil from the rind into the drink, which is much more viscous than usual because it’s so cold, and the oil floats on top and greets your nose with a hint of the Mediterranean.

At around £20 (roughly $25), the Dukes Martini seems dear, but might be considered a bargain, given the showmanship and the size—about five ounces of alcohol. There’s a reason why the bar has a two-drink per person maximum.

In 2012, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Dr. No, the first 007 movie, Palazzi created two Bond Martinis. The first, the Vesper, is based on the original Fleming recipe. It is made with No. 3 London Dry Gin and Potocki, a Polish vodka, plus Lillet Blanc and Angostura bitters.

However, in Casino Royale, Bond specifies the less expensive Gordon’s gin. He doesn’t call for a vodka brand, but notes when he tastes the drink, "Excellent ... but if you can get a vodka made with grain instead of potatoes, you will find it still better."

Palazzi’s choice, a rye-based vodka, is what 007 would have preferred.

The barman’s one concession to modernity is with Lillet Blanc. Bond orders Kina Lillet in the book, but Lillet, a French maker of aperitifs, discontinued that bitter, quinine-flavored variety in 1986 in favor of the sweeter Blanc version. Bond also does not order bitters.

Dukes Hotel Cognac and Cigar Garden
Opened in 2010, the "Cognac and Cigar Garden" at Dukes Hotel encourages smoking and is open nightly.

The second Bond cocktail is the sweet Fleming 89. It honors London’s Floris perfumery, whose Number 89 Eau de Toilette was Bond’s signature scent. Palazzi infuses Russian vodka with vanilla beans and mixes this with sugared rose petals, vermouth, Lillet, and chocolate bitters.

While most famous for its Martinis, Dukes also has a place for you to smoke. The luxury hotel, which has first rate-accommodations, service and is well regarded for its flagship eatery GBR, added an outdoor “Cognac and Cigar Garden” in 2010 to counter the UK’s indoor smoking ban. The garden is open nightly, complete with heaters and an upscale cigar list.