For all of the martinis currently splashing around New York — espresso martinis and dirty martinis, martinis garnished with anchovies and martinis mixed with MSG — one of the world’s most revered renditions of the drink has remained largely missing.
The Dukes martini is a London classic and often approached with the same care you might give an angry bulldog — equal parts respect and caution. Dukes refers to Dukes Bar, inside the posh Dukes Hotel, located within the even posher St. James’s neighborhood. That’s where the drink was created back in the ’80s by a bartender named Salvatore Calabrese. It is a very cold martini, because the bottles of gin and vodka are stored in a freezer until they are needed. It is a very dry martini, because only the smallest amount of vermouth is used. And it is a very strong martini, because it is neither stirred nor shaken. Instead, the undiluted spirit is poured directly into a chilled glass. It’s a full three-martini lunch taken down in a few bracing gulps.
The Dukes martini was created to appease the unreasonable demands of a longtime journalist. Stanton Delaplane, during his 50-plus years at the San Francisco Chronicle, was one of the most famous columnists in the world. (Today he is best known for introducing Irish coffee to the U.S.) Delaplane, who died in 1988, spent some of his final days at the Dukes Hotel, where he nightly asked for a very cold, very dry martini. Nothing that young Calabrese could do would fully satisfy the writer. Then, one day, Calabrese put the gin in the freezer and poured Delaplane’s martini directly from the bottle. A miniscule amount of vermouth was added via a dasher bottle. Delaplane tasted the cocktail and said nothing. But he drank it. He then ordered a second, drank that, and retired to his room. Soon after, he filed a column that ended with the line, “We went over to the Dukes Hotel in St. James’ Place for lunch. (Salvatore, the barman, makes the best martini in England.)” Calabrese’s reputation was made, and so was that of Dukes Bar. For 35 years now, people have traveled to the tiny, quiet, well-upholstered bar from all over the world to willingly embalm themselves with the lethal house specialty
Brian Evans, who works as director of bars for Sunday Hospitality group, first encountered the Dukes martini while traveling last summer. He ordered it with Plymouth gin, and he did not finish it. “It was wonderful,” he says, “but I had some other destinations to get to.”
Nevertheless, it left an impression, and when Evans was putting together his menu for the Hotel Chelsea’s newly unveiled Lobby Bar, it was the first drink he added to a section called “Tributes,” versions of famous drinks invented by others, including the Tommy’s Margarita by Julio Bermejo and the Oaxaca Old-Fashioned by Phil Ward. At the top of the list, selling for a cool $26, is the Dukes martini.
As in its hometown, the drink at Lobby Bar is prepared tableside. Dukes Bar offers a choice of gins and vodkas; in New York, there isn’t enough freezer space for that, so the gin is Tanqueray 10 and the vodka Ketel One — each encased in a block of solid ice that Evans calls “the koozie.” He adds a teaspoon of Maldon salt solution to each bottle, which he says helps the flavors pop. (For Calabrese’s part, he does not mind his creation being duplicated across the Atlantic: “It is always pleasing that my method is recognized around the world,” he says.)
So far, the drink has been a hit in New York. “It definitely resonated with a lot more people than I expected,” Evans says, recalling a group of eight that ordered a round of Dukes martinis for the entire table. “I was caught a bit off guard on that one.”
It’s easy for this cocktail to catch customers off guard, too, being that it is, in essence, a glass full of frozen liquor. For that reason, and for everyone’s safety, Lobby Bar limits each guest to no more than two Dukes martinis per evening.