David Coggins raises a glass to Alessandro Palazzi's famous take on the martini.
A martini is more than a cocktail the same way a tuxedo is more than a suit. When you start an evening with a good martini, that evening holds promise (not unlike putting on a good tuxedo, incidentally). By now there may not be a more famous martini than the one poured by Alessandro Palazzi at Dukes Hotel in London. The bar is not a bar in the conventional sense—nothing much happens at the very small bar itself. People sit at tables in a few small rooms and the theatre happens right in front of you when Sr. Palazzi rolls up with his drinks cart. Like many people, each time this happens I’m always taken aback by his charm and charisma, a gracious host with strong convictions about the fine distinctions of martinis.
To begin with, Sr. Palazzi uses an English vermouth by Sacred - a distillery based in Highgate, London - which was developed according to his own specifications. But then he takes a dismissive, even hostile, approach to it, swirling it in one of the frosted glasses then emptying it with dispatch, onto the carpet, or possibly over his shoulder (if there’s nobody behind him). Then he takes a bottle of gin from his arsenal, always from the deep freeze. This can be No. 3 London Dry Gin from Berry Bros. & Rudd, or something more esoteric, like Ki No Bi from Kyoto (the very first gin to come out of Japan). Then he does something that seems almost reckless in its simplicity and sheer audacity: he just pours the gin into the glass. Straight from the cold, the gin moves deliberately, as if emerging from a more ancient, hibernating state.
This pour seems to last for a while (Sr. Palazzi says each martini contains five shots of alcohol, which is a bracing thought). He might make eye contact with you. It’s not a challenge, per se, but it might feel like one later on. He adds a twist of lemon (they are beautiful, sent from the Amalfi Coast). Then you have yourself a cocktail, my friend. For those who are slightly conflicted about the prospect of drinking that much gin at its most elemental, then you might consider the Vesper Martini—though that involves three parts gin to one part vodka (in addition to bitters, Sacred Amber vermouth, and an orange peel). When this arrives you might feel like an adult. After drinking one you’ll undoubtedly feel good. After you drink two—which happens to be the bar’s limit—you’ll feel many emotions, some of them conflicted.
You might emerge onto St. James’s Street with the urge to do something rash, like buy a pair of handmade shoes. Or text your ex-girlfriend. The best idea may be to have an indulgent meal nearby (Wiltons anyone?). Then you can prolong the celebration, and, just as crucially, eat something. But that’s the beauty of the Dukes cocktail, it brings a sense of festivity to the day, and sets the stage for an evening worth remembering, even if the details are a little vague the next day.