Educating Bartenders Worldwide.
By Beverage Trade Network
Alessandro Palazzi, Head Bartender at Dukes Bar, London, has been working as a bartender for 46 years. Along with bartending in London, he’s spent quite some time in Italy and Paris, working the bar and learning about spirits, cocktails, and wines.
Today, Alessandro sits with us and chats about how he runs Dukes and shares some of his stories from back in the day.
I graduated from a catering college in Italy and then moved to the UK to learn English. I didn't start bartending from the beginning for two reasons mainly. The first one, I was 17 when I came to the UK, so I was too young to work behind the bar.
Second, I didn't know any English. So my first step here was working as a kitchen porter. That taught me a lot. It taught me how to be humble and work with every person in an establishment. I moved on to work at an Italian restaurant which I didn't want to do at first. I knew that if I worked at an Italian restaurant I wouldn't learn any English.
But living in London was expensive, so I had to work there. Again, I was too young to be behind the bar, so I just made coffee.
My first bartending experience was at a Manor House in Cobham, where I was assisting the bartender there. He taught me a lot - he taught me how to look and learn, which is very important in bartending.
I was then promoted and went to work at the Excelsior, but then my boss over there got transferred to Paris, and since he knew I could speak French, he asked me to come along. They found me a job in the hotel’s restaurant, where there was a LOT of wine.
So at that time, my job title was Sommelier, but I didn’t know anything about wine. Instead, I had my own little cocktail trolley and used to make cocktails. I learned a lot about wine there though.
Then I came back to the UK and worked as a restaurant manager, but I missed being behind the bar. But of course, being the restaurant manager taught me a lot too. It taught me how to work the floor and attend to guests, which is very important, even as a bartender.
After that, I went back to Italy to open my own wine bar, but that didn’t work out for me. In the 1980s, I got a call from The Ritz in Paris, so I took the train there and worked at Bar Vendome. I was there for a while, and in 1997, I moved back to London, and have been here since then.
Unfortunately, that didn’t work out really well. But for me, it was still a great experience. My first mistake was that I forgot that I was back in Italy. In Italy, we do things very differently, but I tried opening my bar the English way.
The second reason was that we were played by the people. We were told that we had the license to put seating in our establishment, but later we found out that we couldn’t actually put seating there.
So that was sad, but it was a great experience. It taught me how to work with other people and how to make sure everything is checked properly from my end.
This is something I always say. A bartender has to be diplomatic, acrobatic, and charismatic. Making a cocktail is not difficult, but you have to have a passion for hospitality to do it right. When I talk about being diplomatic, I mean that one should be able to adjust to what’s going on at the bar, be humble, and be discreet. My philosophy is that what happens at the bar, stays at the bar. We are there to help the customer regardless of what they want, and keep it to ourselves.
Second, acrobatic. A bartender is not only known for making drinks. We do a lot of things. Sometimes, when a customer comes in, they want us to suggest places, or organize a surprise for their girlfriend/boyfriend, and we should be able to do it. This reminds me of a time when there was a beautiful couple at the bar, and the lady had a little too much to drink. I helped them get into a taxi, and did it in a very lowkey manner, and the lady apologised, and I told her it’s not a big deal. How you treat your customers really matters a lot in our business.
Lastly, charismatic. As a bartender, you should be happy and enjoy what you’re doing. You should be able to build relationships with your guests so they feel comfortable and confident around you.
Ah, there are so many. But since we are talking about being acrobatic as a bartender - let me recall this for you. There was this one time when one of my guests came up to me and asked me if I could take a video of his proposal. So then while setting up, I told him something is missing. He asked me what it was and I said flowers. Now, it was night time and we couldn’t really find flowers anywhere. So I went to the reception and took the flowers from the vase there. They were going to be replaced the next day anyway. I got the flowers and gave them to him, and he was super pleased! This made me super happy too!
The classic martini is my favorite, made with gin and a twist of lemon. In my career, there are a lot of rules but if someone wants something nice, then a martini always does the trick.
I also love making my white truffle martini. I actually didn’t intend to make a Martini with truffle, but once I saw a lot of white truffle being wasted in the restaurant, so I took it. And I didn’t want to feel guilty about taking it, so I infused it with frozen potato vodka, added vermouth, and made a martini out of it. Now I have people coming in for the white truffle martini during the winter months.
Once someone asked me to make him a half beer - half tomato juice mix in a tall glass. A few people were sitting at the bar and asked why I was doing that, and I said it’s what the customer wants.
I like to make things simple. First and foremost, I will taste the product and get my team to taste it as well. If we really like the product, we see if there’s something we can get rid of, and replace it with the new product. We really like introducing our customers to newer products and local brands.
And lastly, price, of course. For martinis, we like to keep the price of the gin or vodka the same throughout.
At Duke’s, we are independent. We don’t sign any contracts with brands. If the majority of us like something, we will introduce it to the customer, and if the customer likes it as much as we do, then we will add it to our bar. We’ve been working with our supplier for a long time now, and he’s the best. If I need any support, he’s there to give it to me.
I have so many, I might need a big book! But I would have to say that the one that still makes me laugh is when Madonna was staying at The Ritz. She asked for a Cosmopolitan, and I got confused and thought she was asking for the magazine.
So I told her bodyguard that I didn’t have time to go and buy one, and that’s when he said to me, that Cosmopolitan is a cocktail! So I went to Madonna and told her I didn’t know how to make one. This was followed by Madonna calling me stupid. But in the end, it turned out fine - and I made her a Kir Royale.
That’s simple, vermouth. These days, vermouth is getting more popular, and that’s good. But back in the day, vermouth was very underrated.
That’s a very good question. I like to see a menu that represents the place and shows me something different. Whenever you go to a bar, the bartender knows how to make the classic cocktails - so adding them to your menu isn’t something that interests me. Instead, show me something else. A menu with 10-12 cocktails that represent the bar is impressive.
For example, at Dukes, we all know how to make classic cocktails, so if someone asks for them, we make one - but it’s not on the menu. I also like places with delicious, fresh cocktails. Most of the time, I don’t like seeing menus with big brands at the top, because they’re probably sponsored. Show me something original.
I have been active on social media for a while now. But over the past year, when we were in lockdown, I started doing a lot more than I used to. I would make cocktails for the people to see. I also had a lot of brands approaching me, asking me if I could do something with their spirits. Of course, if I really liked the product, I would do it.
Social media has been really rewarding for me. I have customers coming in from all over, asking me to make them something they saw on my Instagram. It’s really nice to see that people like what I’m doing. Plus, all my followers are organic too. I don’t get into the whole buying followers thing at all.
Here in the UK, the negroni is getting more and more popular. These days, we do negroni in different ways. We don’t follow strict rules. I do this negroni with smokey whiskey. Amaro is also becoming quite popular.
My only advice would be to stay humble. Treat everyone the same, whether they’re the kitchen porter or the top guy. In my many years of bartending, I have been treated badly at some places, and it made me realize that everyone is important in their own way. It’s important to stay modest.
I don’t drink during the weekdays, but over the weekend, on my days off, I enjoy gin, vermouth, and whiskey.