Where to Smoke - Dukes Bar at Dukes Hotel, London
Outside of Havana itself few locations mean as much to the world of Cuban Cigars as the little corner of London known as St. James’s. Since Henry VIII built his palace of the same name through the glory era of gentleman’s clubs to today’s modern home of luxury, St. James’s has been an area of elegance and refinement for almost 500 years. In 1787 a Mr. Robert Lewis began trading in fine tobacco on St James’s Street, a store which still stands today and is the oldest on a strip home to some of the world’s finest cigar merchants. For those looking to experience this long-held tradition of luxury, be they locals or guests to the capital, Dukes Hotel is the ideal base.
Dukes Hotel has graced a hidden courtyard at the end of St James’s Place since 1908. It is a mere stroll away from that hallowed row of tobacconists and borders Green Park at the rear. With only 90 rooms and suites it is one of the smallest luxury hotels in London, but this relatively diminutive footprint allows for an uncommonly large warmth of reception from the moment you step inside. With fewer guests to attend to the staff have more time to treat everyone who arrives as a long-lost friend, making them feel as if they have returned to their very own high-end pied-a-terre in the city, and that is exactly what they do.
Dukes Bar at Dukes Hotel is famous for its Martinis
The hotel is perhaps more famous for Dukes Bar than any other facet of its operation. More than 100 years serving the finest beverages to some of the finest people have created a name known around the world for service, showmanship and spirits. It is widely held that drinking martinis at Dukes Bar gave Ian Fleming the inspiration to create James Bond’s favourite drink. The service of this cocktail remains one of the signatures of the bar today; performed in front of the guest from a drinks trolley wheeled straight from the deep-freeze specifically for the occasion, a drink is created that is not for the faint-hearted. The amount of gin involved means those ordering two are impressive; those ordering three are politely refused.
A drink of such fortitude is, of course, best paired with a fine cigar. The Cognac and Cigar Garden at Dukes Bar is as petite as the hotel itself, tucked away in an atrium at the centre of the building and shielded from passing view or disturbing noise. It is a tranquil oasis in the middle of the city, and a fine place to enjoy a cigar. The whole operation is overseen by its maestro, Alessandro Palazzi. This is a man whose knowledge of flavour, and how to blend and complement different notes, is unsurpassed. Alongside the bar’s legendary martinis, Alessandro has created a line of negronis that will accompany a range of different cigar flavours, including a wonderfully peated negroni torbato created and recommended by the man himself to pair with my partner’s Cohiba Exquisitos. If, like me, you stay clear of alcohol, don’t fret, for Alessandro can create a booze-free drink that will rival the classic cocktails for flavour. These wonderful options are all supplementary to the stars of the garden: a list of cognac cocktails with bespoke food pairings that will form a perfect trilogy with your chosen Havana puro.
Cohiba cigars were perfectly paired with cocktails recommended by the bar team.
Dotted throughout this property are reminders of past glories, of the sophistication and chic of the golden ages of cocktails in the 1920s and 1950s. The décor reminds us of these times and allows us to transport ourselves to Fleming’s own era, when certain drinks were prescribed for certain times of day and a fine meal – such as can be found in the hotel’s own Great British Restaurant – would be rounded off with port and cigars. Guests are encouraged to dress well (jackets please, gentlemen) and staff follow suit, resplendent in their white jackets as they prepare your cocktails. It is with these staff the true value of this hidden gem is found – every one of them offer a greeting and assistance that feels completely genuine. Here we are truly treated as guests, not merely paying customers, and it is this personal touch that makes it such a comfortable place to visit, whether it is for a quick drink and smoke or a longer stay. Book ahead, though – this staff has worked hard to make a name for itself, and that little garden will fill up fast.