The Dukes Bar manager Alessandro Palazzi is most famous for his James Bond inspired martinis, but he is also passionate about vintage cocktail ingredients.
Alessandro, how did your love for vintage cocktails begin?
In the 1980s we were doing really shitty stuff, the drinks were all about the monkey, the cocktail stick and the umbrellas, then with the new wave of cocktails, bartenders went back to basics. Our bible was The Savoy Cocktail Book and the original cocktail book from the Café Royal too. By 2008-2009, some of the speakeasy bars in London were making vintage cocktails with vintage products and they were buying vintage ingredients, the bitters – it all came from The Whisky Exchange.
For the Queen’s Jubilee I wanted to do a vintage martini so I was looking for a bottle of gin that would cost no more than £50 or £60. I found a bottle of Plymouth Gin but I could not afford to pay £250, the hotel would kill me! I sent a picture of the bottle to Sean [Harrison, master distiller] at Plymouth Distillery and he said “Please, please, can I buy it to put it in the museum?” Of course I said yes.
I wanted to do different martinis, not just one martini, I wasn’t doing it for the queen or for the marketing. I really wanted to copy the classic martini. And more and more I was seeing that bartenders were trying to find vintage products to recreate cocktails too. It started with the Vesper, because people want to recreate the original Vesper with Kina Lillet, but you cannot actually do it because Kina Lillet can cost up to £800 to £900 a bottle.
What has changed since you first trained as a bartender?
When I started there were so many rules, but it’s not like that now. A lot of young bartenders want to experiment now, they’re passionate, they’re 25 years old or 27 years old. They want to go back in time to taste and recreate the history of the cocktail and give it to the customer. When I started as a bartender you had the 50 cocktails and you didn’t have to think more than that.
Do vintage ingredients really make such a difference to a cocktail?
These vintage products are completely different from today. Something has changed. They were family owned, not by big companies. Look at Campari now, it used to be a family company making one product, now it’s a global drinks multi-national.
Do you alter a cocktail recipe when you use vintage ingredients?
So if I redo a vintage cocktail I want to try to do it like it was then, but it depends. In one way you have to adapt, and sometimes you cannot really find the exact ingredients.
Sometimes it depends on the cocktail, for instance a Vesper is almost impossible as I have said, but if you want to recreate a Negroni from an exact time it’s not difficult to find a gin, a Campari and a Vermouth from the same period in history. Then I would do it the old way.
A lot of bartenders use the Savoy book to get back to how these drinks were actually made. It has become one of the most important cocktail books. There are so many cocktail books but really a passionate bartender will buy a reprint and follow the same recipes in the book.
I have my grandfather’s old cocktail book that was printed in 1930. The recipe for a dry martini is much ‘wetter’ than it is now.
Yes, but the Vermouth was much stronger then too. If you make martini with a dry vermouth like Noilly Prat – there’s quite a lot of that on the market so you can compare old and new – if you take a Noilly Prat from the 1950s when it was a family-run business compare it to Noilly Prat today, you might be surprised.
But would you mix vintage ingredients with modern ingredients in a cocktail? Is that allowed?
Oh yes, from my experience, one mega ingredient can make it become an amazing cocktail.
For my wife’s 50th birthday party for instance I made negronis in a big ceramic five litre jug. For this negroni I used No.3 London Dry Gin and I used Campari and an old vermouth that I was very lucky to buy for just £20, and this particular vermouth made the negroni fantastic, absolutely fantastic. Three times I filled the ceramic jug during the party! They kept coming back for more (and I kept tasting it and it was beautiful…). The quality of the vermouth helped give the negroni that kick.
What do you think are the best vintage ingredients for making vintage cocktails?
I always look for gin, liqueurs and bitters and vermouth. I recently bought Antica Formula Vermouth from the 1980s and the price was going up and up while I was bidding – I was worried it was going to go above £200 then I managed to win it. I could buy Antica Formula now and it would cost me for £30 but I was prepared to pay much more because of the quality of this vintage one.
What about unfashionable liqueurs that you can pick up for bargain at auction?
When I came to England in 1975 liqueurs were for when you went out – people always had a liqueur after dinner – we used to sell a lot of Strega, Galliano, Sambuca, now we sell very little of these. So if you want to recreate something you can buy these vintage liqueurs at auction for a reasonable price because people are not aware of them.
Last time, I went through the auction and started looking for things from the last page where there’s the lowest priced products. You can always find something like that.
Do you buy vintage bottlings of whisky too?
You know you get the guys who buy a bottle to then sell it on, and then you get the really passionate guys who just want to appreciate it. The latest whisky I bought was actually two 1980s bottles of White Horse from Whisky.Auction. A 1980s White Horse is completely different from the White Horse there is now. I would have to pay much more for something of the same quality bottled now. I bought two bottles because I was told to drink one and keep one, but I think I’ll drink both of them!
The same thing with Dimple. I had one from the 1960s, it was great and I finished it in three weeks so when I saw a bottle of Dimple 15 Year Old from today in a shop and I thought I would buy it, but then I tasted it…I was so disappointed – in the end I gave it as a present to the neighbours and they were quite happy.
You know you once made me two Negronis that changed the way I think about cocktails…
Yes, the modern style to make a Negroni is you build it in the glass on ice but I remembered how we used to do it when I was in catering school in 1975. Back then they taught us to make Negronis in a mixing glass, you then strained it into a large martini glass. I made both styles to compare… and how fantastic was that old negroni! How different it was! I don’t tell everybody though, I tell people who appreciate the quality.
The thing now is the cost, because all these vintage products are becoming more expensive but people who appreciate it understand why.