by Nick Hendry
Photography by Rikesh Chauhan
Many of us who love Cuban cigars also love fine spirits and expertly-mixed cocktails. It seems logical that, if one has put time and effort into choosing a premium smoke, the drink enjoyed alongside it should be of equal quality. When we begin to explore the world of fine beverages, and the venues in which they are created and served, the names of a few luminaries in the field of mixology crop up time and time again. None of these mixologists are held in higher esteem than Alessandro Palazzi.
Alessandro has been in the bar trade since 1975, and perfected his craft in some of the world’s most prestigious properties before settling into his current home at Dukes Bar in London’s St James's. Over almost 50 years in hospitality he has catered to royalty, movie stars, business leaders and politicians, been awarded the title of Keeper of the Quaich for his services to Scotch Whisky, and has a host of ‘Best Bartender’ awards on his mantle. He is affectionately, and reverently, addressed as ‘Maestro’ by those who have been fortunate enough to get to know him over the years, but is endearingly humble when this title is applied, assuring me he is “cocktail bartender, not maestro” when we caught up for a chat in the relaxing surroundings of the Dukes Cigar Garden.
Here at EGM, it has been said many times that cigars bring a certain conviviality to an occasion, and this is something with which Alessandro agrees:
“Here at Dukes we are famous for martinis, but when I first started here we also used to sell 30 cigars each evening. Cigars and drinks bring people together. In those days when we could smoke inside, one table would buy a cigar and another would ask them ‘what are you smoking?’. All of a sudden people would start talking to each other. It was like a club.”
This atmosphere of collaboration is central to the cigar community; smokers love to share their passion with like-minded people and to learn something new in return. Alessandro believes the ability to do this can be of utmost importance to some when they plan a trip:
“Certain people, especially from the US, began to favour other hotels where they could smoke their cigars. At the time, this area [the Dukes Cigar Garden] was a no-man’s-land; there was a small fountain inside but nothing else. Luckily, I was allowed to create this space for them to enjoy their smokes in comfort.”
This attention to detail is part of what has built Alessandro’s reputation. The work of a top bartender is not just pouring spirits and mixers in precise quantities to make sure the flavours balance correctly, it is ensuring the location in which they are enjoyed is conducive to the experience being truly memorable. No cocktail, similarly no cigar, is flavourful enough to compensate for an unpleasant atmosphere.
Every detail, down to the correct cigar ashtrays, is given strict attention under Alessandro's watchful eye
Like his knowledge of spirits, Alessandro’s knowledge of cigars is varied and extensive.
“My first cigar was a Toscanello, and when I was at The Ritz in Paris I was responsible for the cigars there. I learned the most from the customers who smoked there in the 90s – cigars are like whisky, you’re always learning. No-one will ever know everything about cigars.”
Does he have a favourite?
“It depends on what I am in the mood for, but I always prefer a robusto size – something with a bit of weight. If I feel like something lighter, the [Hoyo de Monterrey} Epicure No. 2. For a bit more strength, the Maduro Magicos from Cohiba.”
Dukes Bar is a wonderful place for many reasons, one of which is the sheer variety of people who come in search of those legendary martinis. When looking across the list of places where Alessandro has learned and fine-tuned his craft, one can only marvel at the thought of the people he must have encountered over the years.
“People of all ages come here to Dukes – young and old, and from all walks of life. When I was in Pairs, I was given a Davidoff Dom Perignon by an Arab prince who was happy that we were the only bar in town who didn’t inflate his prices when they found out who he was.”
The maestro's own go-to pairing: a bourbon Manhattan and a fine cigar
Despite his insistence that he is no maestro, Alessandro’s expertise cannot be denied. To have worked at the top of any discipline for as long as he has requires an extraordinary knowledge of your product, so who better to go to for advice on cocktail/cigar pairings?
“I have 2 cocktails that I would always go for. One is the bourbon Manhattan; after dinner with a cigar, it is a perfect choice. The second would be my own negroni torbato – a recreation I did when I was in Islay for the whisky festival. It’s based on the Boulevardier, but uses peated whisky, Aperol instead of Campari (as the flavour is much lighter) and a spray of ‘Essence of Islay’ – it will add just a hint of extra peat to the aroma”
This ‘hint of peat’ brings back memories to me of my homeland; of the smell of a roaring peat fire welcoming one into a place of shelter in the winter, usually filled with laughter and noise, fuelled by more than a few whiskies. It’s a fitting image, as it is the ability to provide this sense of welcome that sets Alessandro apart from many of his peers in the bar trade. He doesn’t just pour you a drink, he makes you feel at home; whether it with his friendly chat, his remembering your usual or his sense of where to seat guests so the boisterous celebratory crowd and the solo relaxing traveller both get the experience they are looking for, without either being troubled by the other. All these qualities and more – not least the humility with which he treats the title – make him truly deserving of the name “Maestro”.