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 Barnett on Business Travel

chris IN LONDON, WHERE
THE $32 MARTINI REIGNS


BY CHRIS BARNETT

December 21, 2006 -- London is abloom today with bustling bars and stylish saloons. The cocktail safari has replaced the pub crawl as a civilized way to drink in the charms of the most electric city in the English-speaking world.

China Tang, a sleek, high-voltage Asian bistro-bar, opened a year ago in the venerable Dorchester Hotel to rave reviews. The Dorch is hip? Why not? The fabled British pubs perched on almost every corner are now almost all corporately owned and mostly boring. The publican just pulls draughts and collects quid.

When I'm in London and want to unwind over something ice cold and spirited, I expect a refuge that's calm, clubby but not comatose. Where the paneling is at least 100 years older than the whiskey. Where the bartender is part alchemist and part ambassador. Where the barman has great stories and tells them while mixing and pouring without spilling a drop.

For my money--and you have to bring lots of it to London today--Dukes Bar in Dukes Hotel is the perfect libational sanctuary. It has the looks, the lore, the intimacy and the cocktail craftsmanship I thirst for in a great bar without the pretentious decadence of the drinking dens of London's newer hotels.

Dukes also has an extraordinary, well-seasoned head barman named Tony Micellotta, an Italian so smooth he may be able to negotiate truces between warring nations. Micellota apprenticed at the American Bar of the Savoy Hotel under the legendary head barman, Peter Dorrelli, longtime president of the U.K. Barman's Guild. His job, above all, "is to make people feel at home," he explains.

The setting helps. The bar at Dukes, originally a private home built in 1780 that became a hotel in 1908, is essentially three cozy sitting rooms filled with leather armchairs, tables and a sofa. The décor is very British traditional: mahogany paneling interspersed with subdued blue-striped wallpaper. There are also four original paintings of various dukes--Wellington, Cumberland and lesser-known royals in sporting scenes--so you never drink alone.

Stationed behind a tiny bar without stools, Micellotta is a maestro of the classic dry martini and a former winner of the World Martini Championship. He is also quick to protect the cocktail's honor. He dismisses as rubbish the legend that Ian Fleming coined the phrase "shaken, not stirred" for James Bond while sipping a Dukes' martini. "Ian Fleming was a customer," Micelotta says, "but that's a myth."

Aficionados have long debated the birthplace of the martini, but Micelotta insists it was "officially born in 1910 at the Knickerbocker Club in New York by an Italian barman named Martini who substituted Martini and Rossi vermouth from Italy for Noilly Pratt from France." Around the world, a martini was made only with dry gin, preferably distilled in London, until World War II. That's "when Americans started asking for a vodka version made with Smirnoff," Micelotta says

Ordering the potent cocktail at Dukes Bar today is the first step of a ritual that has made it "one of the most expensive martinis in the world: 16 pounds sterling or $32 dollars including service," says Micelotta proudly. He begins by opening a big freezer cabinet behind the bar where the most popular vodkas and gins (Bombay Sapphire, Tanquerey and 114 proof Plymouth Navy Strength) are stored along with the glassware. He loads all the ingredients onto a small trolley called a Gheridon, rolls it over to you and prepares it tableside.

"At Dukes, we go to the customer, they don't come to us," he explains. "Into a chilled glass I put a drop of dry vermouth. Then I pour 125 milligrams or five ounces of either gin or vodka. I don't stir, I don't shake. Then, with a potato peeler, I carve a zest from a fresh lemon, twist it to release the lemon oil and drop it in the glass and serve an olive on the side. The customer usually orders two, but we dissuade them against drinking a third. We want them to come back."

Micleotta, who is penning his own book on the martini, contends that Dukes is a "classic bar and we avoid fancy, trendy drinks. We serve Manhattans, rob roys, bellinis, sidecars, negronis and we can't refuse a cosmopolitan. But if someone orders a mojito, we send them to Cuba." All cocktails, not just martinis, are $32 each including service.

For wine lovers, Micleotta pours several varietals at $19 a glass including service. A flute of Pol Roger champagne is a hefty $30 at current exchange rates. And just two bottled beers ($12) are available, one from Italy and one from Germany. No English draughts? "We don't have beer on tap," he says with a smile. "We send them over to the Red Lion pub."

Micelotta isn't much of a name dropper, but he did tell me that Paul McCartney has dropped by for a drink. "He ordered a margarita with a splash of orange juice and we spoke Italian. He was very gracious and excused himself for not having a martini."

This column originally appeared at JoeSentMe.com.

Copyright © 2001-2006 by Chris Barnett. All rights reserved.