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- Dukes Bar, St James’s
- The Egerton House Hotel, Knightsbridge
- Connaught Bar, Mayfair
- Rules, Covent Garden
- The Fumoir, Claridge’s, Mayfair
My idol is the late American writer James Salter, and not just for his exceptional prose. He enjoyed an exquisitely made dry martini every night and, long before he died in 2015 at the age of 90, estimated he had drunk 8,700 martinis in his life.
Salter’s secret ingredient was a splash of Lea & Perrins Worcestershire Sauce, which he claimed added the “faint, unidentifiable touch of greatness”.
I was awakened to the delights of a martini – somewhat improbably – in Scotland, the land of Scotch whisky. My host Dermot Jenkinson would make great jugs of the stuff, pouring frozen vodka from a height. How much vodka do you put in? I enquired. “I count to ten very slowly, and then I pour some more,” came the response.
Martinis have marked many a milestone, and my quest to find the perfect one has taken me from the dive bars of Brooklyn to the palace hotels of Paris. When I moved to the French capital three years ago, a friend took me to the Hemingway Bar at the Ritz to celebrate with its famous clean dirty martini — still to this day the best I have ever had.
The effects of a good martini are a kind of alchemy that transcends its status as just a drink. One sip can change the course of an entire evening.
James Bond asked for “shaken, not stirred”, but the real purists today know the best dry martini is served untampered with: the gin or vodka is frozen until it takes on the viscosity of syrup and is poured straight into the (frozen) glass, lined with a thin coating of vermouth. But more on that later.
How many martinis is the right number? There are various schools of thought. These days even a solo martini can feel enough to “wash an elephant”, as martini aficionado Holly Golightly might have said.
At Dukes Bar at Dukes hotel in St James’s (see below) the unwritten rule is a maximum of two per person. They will refuse to serve you a third, though hotel guests have been known to flout this limit. Follow their example at your risk and peril.
American humorist and writer James Thurber believed “one [martini] is all right, two is too many, and three is not enough”. Meanwhile, San Francisco columnist Herb Caen once said “martinis are like breasts: one isn’t enough, and three is too many”.
I’m with American poet Dorothy Parker, or the lines sometimes attributed to her: “I like to have a martini/ Two at the very most/ After three I’m under the table/ After four I’m under my host.”
On that note, before you embark on dry (martini) January, here are the best places to raise your glasses in London:
1. Dukes Bar
Dukes London, 35 St James’s Place, St James’s, London SW1A 1NY
- Good for: head bartender Alessandro Palazzi and his team have a well-deserved reputation for making the best martini in London; for the true martini aficionado this is an essential pilgrimage
- Not so good for: only hotel guests are allowed to book a table, so if you don’t arrive very early you may have to wait in the hotel lobby
- FYI: if Dukes is full, pop round the corner to The American Bar at The Stafford Hotel
It would be sacrilege to speak of martinis without mentioning Dukes Bar in the Mayfair hotel of the same name. It’s hard to think of a more reassuring sound after a long day of meetings than the gentle clang of the Dukes drinks trolley making its way towards you. Dukes is where James Bond author Ian Fleming drank dry martinis. It was here, legend has it, he coined the phrase “shaken, not stirred”.
Charismatic Italian martini maestro Palazzi has managed Dukes Bar since 2007, and his dry martinis are neither shaken nor stirred. The key is temperature (minus 22 degrees, to be precise) and a touch of theatre.
Palazzi begins by rinsing a frozen glass with a splash of dry vermouth (distilled in Highgate, north London), which he flicks over his shoulder on to the carpet. He then pours in gin (often No.3 London Dry Gin from Berry Bros & Rudd) or vodka so fresh from the freezer. The twist comes in the form of a piece of peel from an organic, unwaxed lemon from Italy’s Amalfi coast, spritzed over the glass then plopped in.
Just over a decade ago Palazzi recreated the Vesper martini, which is inspired by Fleming’s 1953 Bond novel Casino Royale. It contains both gin (three parts) and vodka (one part) — a nod to the beautiful Vesper Lynd, a double agent in the novel — as well as bitters, Sacred English Amber Vermouth and a slice of orange peel.
The Vesper may be the most famous martini served at Dukes, but Palazzi says his proudest creation is a truffle martini, which is made by soaking Italian white truffles from Alba in vodka for a month before the vodka is frozen. “If I had created the truffle martini 40 years ago I would be locked up in the Tower of London,” he jokes. “Whereas today people are hungry for experimentation.”
Palazzi makes about 10 bottles of truffle vodka each season. “Once it’s finished, it’s finished,” he says, adding that even the team at Dukes don’t know the secret recipe. “It’s the only cocktail I make where they don’t know how I do the infusion.”
Dukes draws a mixture of local Mayfair financiers and people from the art world, as well as Bond lovers and Americans who come to try the martini in the cosy, traditional interiors, in a hotel tucked away from the hubbub of St James’s and Piccadilly.
2. The Egerton House Hotel
17-19 Egerton Terrace, Knightsbridge, London SW3 2BX
- Good for: don’t miss the exquisite Welsh rarebit-style cheese on toast that is brought with your martini, and other complimentary canapés. Head barman Esley Gunaratne advises: “Eat the warm cheese on toast before it gets cold, and drink the cold martini before it gets warm.”
- Not so good for: the vibe is traditional and cosy, rather than sexy and sophisticated
- FYI: book in for an hour-long masterclass with Gunaratne to discover the secrets of making the perfect martini
The bar of The Egerton House Hotel has the air of a private drawing room in an English country house. Situated in a pair of 19th-century red-brick houses on a tree-lined street in Knightsbridge, this tiny bar (capacity: 18) has evolved over the past decade from an honesty box in the corner to a well-kept secret among martini lovers.
The hotel’s former head barman, Antonio Pizzuti, previously ran the bar at Dukes, so the Egerton dry martini is of a similar school: it’s made in front of guests, with a Dukes-like trolley to hand. Neither shaken nor stirred, the frozen ingredients are poured into a frozen glass and served at minus 22 degrees.
“This is a naked martini,” says Gunaratne, who took over after Pizzuti retired and reckons the bar serves more than 10,000 dry martinis a year to a clientele of business people and locals popping in for an aperitif or a nightcap.
“At this temperature it’s syrupy, so when you take the first sip you don’t get the flavour of the alcohol — you get the flavour of the infusions.”
Gunaratne’s martinis are filled to the ice-cold brim, so rather than risk picking up the glass he suggests lowering your face to take a slurp, the so-called “Egerton Slurp”. While purists opt for a dry gin or vodka martini — straight up, lemon twist, olive, or “dirty” (with added olive juice) — there are also wetter versions on offer, including espresso, chocolate and lychee.
3. Connaught Bar
The Connaught, Carlos Place, Mayfair, London W1K 2AL
- Good for: allow master mixologist Agostino Perrone to tailor the different infusions according to your mood: ginseng for energising, lavender for relaxing, and so on
- Not so good for: the candlelit Connaught Bar is sultry and sexy, so don’t waste a martini there on a business meeting
- FYI: a limited collection of hand-inscribed bottles of The Connaught’s house-distilled gin are available to buy; there are only 1,000 bottles of the 2018 vintage
The interiors of the Connaught Bar sets the standard in the sophistication stakes. It draws regulars aplenty as well as a more international, glamorous crowd. Designed by late Irish architect David Collins, its textured walls in platinum silver leaf, dark leather and mirrored panels evoke a 1920s cubist aesthetic. The gleaming black and chrome martini trolley, which is wheeled into position by Perrone, seems to positively encourage decadence.
Perrone has been in charge since the bar opened in 2008. Last year, it launched Connaught Bar gin, which is distilled, bottled and labelled on site in Mayfair and claims it is distinguished by two distinctive botanical ingredients: Amalfi lemons and red wine.
There is an air of alchemy to Perrone’s creations, not least because the infusions he has sourced are displayed in small brown-glass vials: ginger, liquorice, coriander seed, grapefruit, vanilla, cardamom and lavender. “A martini can still be the most sophisticated cocktail,” he says. “When you think of cocktails, the first thing you think of is a martini glass.”
Guests choose vodka or gin, which is poured into a beaker of slow-melting chiselled ice. A few drops of infusions are added and it is stirred. The liquor is then poured from a height into a chilled glass lined with a splash of vermouth. “The long pour is theatrical and spectacular. It helps to open the flavour to create a better harmony of the aromas,” says Perrone.
35 Maiden Lane, Covent Garden, London WC2E 7LB
- Good for: ask Brian Silva, the straight-talking master barman, to make you a Charles martini (infused with grapefruit and a splash of absinthe). It is not on the menu but is part of his repertoire
- Not so good for: the traffic and tourists in this part of town are not for the faint-hearted; Rules doesn’t play music and doesn’t serve coffee
- FYI: Rules has its own James Bond connection. In the 2015 film Spectre, M, Q and Moneypenny meet there for dinner. If you want to dine like a spymaster, ask for table nine
Rules was established in 1798 and its downstairs restaurant lays claim to being London’s oldest restaurant. It is where Edward VII and his mistress, actress Lillie Langtry, dined together in private. Upstairs, in the dark-wood bar with sumptuous red velvet curtains, you could easily forget it is blowing a gale outside and lose hours over a couple of strong cocktails.
Under Silva (formerly of Balthazar and 5 Hertford Street acclaim), Rules’ martinis are always stirred, never shaken. He insists the dry martini is “the ultimate test, as with only a couple of ingredients in this simple recipe, it has to rely on technique and an awful lot of care”.
“I like classically led cocktails with a twist,” he adds. “The big thing is balance and measure.”
Silva comes from Boston, Massachusetts, but has spent the past three decades in the UK. His martinis are six parts gin or vodka to one part vermouth, and he stirs them for 23 seconds, tasting halfway through. “It’s two simple ingredients that a lot of people can’t do,” he says. “For me it’s about how long you stir it. The third ingredient is water — that’s what balances it.”
Rules is in theatreland and regulars (lawyers and politicians in particular) mix with tourists. The small glasses are more manageable in size than at some establishments, and my companion, who once drank dry martinis with the CIA, said it was the best gin martini he had ever tasted.
5. The Fumoir, Claridge’s
Brook Street, Mayfair, London W1K 4HR
- Good for: this time of year is magical at Claridge’s — the hotel lobby houses an enormous Christmas tree created by shoe designer Christian Louboutin
- Not so good for: there are only 37 seats and standing isn’t an option, so this bar is not for big groups or any table size bigger than four
- FYI: wander along Brook Street to Handel & Hendrix in London, a museum dedicated to the lives of musicians George Frideric and Jimi, who lived next door to each other, albeit a couple of hundred years apart
Step inside the decadent Fumoir bar at Claridge’s hotel in Mayfair and you will be transported back to a time of hard liquor, cigar smoke and Benny Goodman jazz. In fact, The Fumoir only opened in 2001, but its art deco interiors were inspired by a 1930s René Lalique panel that hangs above the door to the bar.
Designed by New York-based artist and architect Thierry Despont, The Fumoir — named after its origins as a cigar bar — is more discreet and intimate than the larger Claridge’s Bar, and draws a film and fashion crowd. Sensual portrait photographs by William Klein adorn the deep aubergine walls. Apart from a couple of bar stools, guests gather at low tables on ruby-red velvet seating.
Martinis are concocted behind a marble horseshoe bar. “The classic cocktails like the martini, negroni and old-fashioned are so easy to get right and so easy to get wrong,” says Denis Broci, the bar manager at Claridge’s, who joined 11 years ago. “It’s all about the little details.”
Unless guests request otherwise, dry martinis are made with Noilly Prat vermouth, sprayed three times into an ice-chilled glass. Then 100ml of gin or vodka, frozen to minus 19 degrees, is poured straight into the glass and a twist of lemon or an olive is added. “You don’t get any dilution from ice,” says Broci. “You have a cocktail that is bone dry.”
The Fumoir regularly tries out different brands of gin and vodka, combining classics such as Plymouth Gin with newer arrivals such as Konik’s Tail, a Polish vodka made from a blend of ancient spelt wheat, golden rye and early winter wheat.
Inside, the soft lighting sparks off the Lalique crystal panels that encircle the bar, creating a romantic picture of old-school elegance. It is just a shame that with the smoking ban, the heady cigar smoke is all but a memory.
See our readers’ recommendations here on the best bars in London for a martini
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