Springtime Cocktails With Alessandro Palazzi of Dukes London
Dukes Bar in London is home to what many who are in the business of knowing suggest could be the best martinis in the world–made from a roster of house-infused spirits overseen by head bartender, Alessandro Palazzi.
On a recent spring weekend in May, Garden Collage took a trip to London and met with Alessandro to experience a garden-fresh cocktail in honor of the Chelsea Flower Show. As the head bartender at the Dukes Hotel, he presides over the famed cocktail bar– which was packed when we arrived– with the kind of ease that only comes with being truly exceptional at your job.
When we walked up, he was busy greeting regulars, managing his reservation book with charm and a warm smile. Locals and tourists alike pack themselves into Dukes on a regular basis, drawn to the allure of its clubby-but-classic atmosphere and in search of one of Palazzi’s fabled martinis, which are prepared tableside.
There was a period in my life when I spent many cocktail hours in Dukes bar: my parents held cocktail hour sacred and knew their way around gin. Fittingly, my memories of Dukes up until very recently were those of a girl sitting with her parents, itching to get out of a stuffy bar and into the city. But on a recent visit to London, a friend invited us to come try “the best martini in town,” promising that I was about to understand what he meant.
Of course, we ended up back at Dukes: this was an entirely different bar than the one I remembered. It was more vibrant. When Alessandro took over the reins over a decade ago, he dusted off the cobwebs, dropped the dress code, and staffed the bar with fellow Italians. While the bar may look old fashioned, under Alessandro’s guidance it has moved to the cutting edge, where it maintains its reputation on the forefront of the bartending community.
The typical buzzwords – among them: local and organic– are second nature for Alessandro, who maintains the ethic of locally-sourced ingredients as a personal philosophy. He and his staff stock the bar with vintage-cut crystal bottles, decanters, and pitchers sourced from neighborhood charity shops, and use them to serve their bespoke homemade infusions. Sacred Gin is their local gin of choice (as Dukes is a Martini bar, the gin is very important). Recently, Palazzi collaborated with the company to make a vermouth that is now exclusive to the Dukes.
Cocktail bars have been undergoing an international, culture-wide renaissance for several years now, but Dukes was one of the first bars to curate their infusions and to design a cocktail menu around a theme. In this case, all of Alessandro’s martinis– except for the Classic, which is an elegant and simple martini served in a freezer-chilled glass– are named after Ian Fleming, who wrote the James Bond novels. (The ingredients for The Classic are simple: cold gin, vermouth, and a generous slice of an un-waxed Amalfi lemon, twisted length wise.) He also takes great care in pairing each cocktail with an occasion, before it was trendy to do so.
In honor of the Chelsea Flower Show, Alessandro prepared us a Room 39– one of the bar’s classic martinis, named for the room where Navy Intelligence met during WWII (and another nod at Ian Fleming). I am not a martini drinker, but I love how this drink plays on the freshness of the Amalfi lemon and several healthy sprigs of thyme, as you’ll see in the recipe below. There are few surprises here: the Je ne sais quoi for any good cocktail usually comes from the garden.
Alessandro Palazzi’s Room 39
- Dry Vermouth
- Thyme Liqueur
- Centerba (which translates as “One Hundred Herbs”)
- Fresh Thyme
- Gin (Palazzi prefers Sacred Gin)
- Fresh Amalfi Lemon (squeezed gently, making sure to get as much juice from it as possible)