Sunday, 11 April 2010

Martini masterclass at Dukes

Keen to learn more about cocktails (through drinking as many of them as possible), on Saturday I attended a martini masterclass at Dukes Hotel in Mayfair.

Christened 'the home of the perfect martini' by The New York Times, Dukes Bar has a reputation for making the best martinis in the world – Charles and Di used to stop by and Bond author Ian Fleming was a regular. Legend has it he coined his double agent's famous 'shaken, not stirred' line during a particularly fruitful drinking session at the bar.

With such a reputation, I was excited to sip on one of the world-class martinis myself. Run by Italian bar manager Alessandro Palazzi, an amiable John Malkovich lookalike dressed in a white tux, the two-hour class walks us through the history of the martini, from its original form, to the truffle-infused martinis of today.

With 36 years in the trade under his belt, Palazzi is full of praise for London, dubbing it 'the capital of cocktail innovation', and concedes that France and Italy are still conservative in their approach to cocktails, doing things boringly by the book rather than taking risks.

Dukes are keen to keep the theatrical element of cocktail making alive – Palazzi makes all his martinis at guests' tables on a wooden trolly. The bar itself is surprisingly small, which only adds to its charm.

The masterclass begins with the 'original' martini, made with Angostura bitters, red vermouth, Old Tom gin and Maraschino cherry liqueur. A lot of the ingredients, like gin and vermouth, were originally used for medical purposes. To finish, he dusts the rim with a strip of Almalfi lemon peel, then drops it into the glass to garnish. The glass gets passed round and we all take a sip. It's delicious but ludicrously strong. We're basically drinking pure alcohol, albeit wonderfully mixed. Luckily a sip is all that's required at this stage.

The class is made up of six martini fans, and we each get the chance to make a different take on the drink. One of Palazzi's golden rules is that martini must be served cold – the colder the better, but ice should be avoided. With each new martini he magics a bottle of gin or vodka fresh from the freezer. Martinis should also be, contrary to Bond, stirred, not shaken. Another tip is to stick to gin, as the botanicals give the martini more flavour.

The 'classic' martini couldn't be simpler – a few drops of dry vermouth to coat the rim of your glass, a generous measure of gin (preferably Beefeater or Plymouth), and a strip of Amalfi lemon peel. Palazzi folds the lemon peel over the glass and squeezes out drops of lemon oil, giving it a zesty lift. The glass gets passed round. It seems even stronger than the last. Much more of this and I'm going to pass out.

Soon it's my turn and I'm summoned to the trolly. I'm tasked with making the Vesper martini, named after Bond's lover Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale. In an unashamed homage to the secret agent, all the martinis on Dukes's list are named after Bond characters. To make the Vesper, I coat the glass with Angostura bitters and pour in one part Potocki vodka and one part Crown Jewel gin, topping it off with Lillet dry vermouth and the customary twist of Amalfi lemon. It's a lethal combination. The glass gets passed round and eventually finds its way back to me. I take a few tiny sips. Palazzi clocks this sidestepping and warns me that I'm not allowed to leave until my glass is empty.

It's a charming afternoon, and I feel wonderfully civilized sitting in Dukes Bar slowly sipping a martini made by a barman at the top of his game. 'Simplicity and balance are key', Palazzi tells us. 'It doesn't matter what you throw in a martini, it's how you throw it in.' Before we go I have one last question: 'why the olive?' 'Ah', Palazzi says with a grin. 'The olive brings out the saltiness, but it's meant to be served on the side. Franklin D. Roosevelt always had three'.

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