Words by: Jane Ryan
Peter Dorelli describes himself as the last of the 'dinosaurs'. He certainly doesn't look like one. But, having just celebrated 50 years in the industry, perhaps he is right. What does the world have to learn from the old guard, from those who forged the way into the current cocktail renaissance, from the men who refuse to retire?
Each time you see Peter you can't help suspecting he's getting younger, like a bartending Benjamin Button. Seated in front of a picture of himself from the 1980s he looks bizarrely youthful today. Dressed in his customary black, with his signature chain around the neck, he is impressively slim. His usual attire normally includes a pair of Converse, but today we've met at the Savoy and he looks the part in polished dress shoes.
And yes, he still walks into the bar as if it were his. The staff greet him like a favourite uncle, he notes everything and certainly isn't afraid to tell the management when they have it wrong. Yet Peter Dorelli isn't pushy, big-headed or arrogant. He knows within the bubble of bartending he is a famous man: "I didn't ask for my position, I didn't chase anything. I just did my own thing, which was to be passionate, to be curious," he says. But he also knows how to be the perfect host, how to make a room laugh, and how to laugh at himself.
Is there something to learn from such industry 'dinosaurs'? His answer: an unequivocal "yes". Today's bartenders, he suggests, have forgotten the values of the old ways.
But where exactly did Peter emerge from? What were these old ways? Surprisingly, they weren't formed in Italy.
Starting life in Rome, he came from a family of bankers, and his father and uncle were determined to have him indoctrinated into the business. "I showed no signs of knowing what I wanted to do so they worked on me. Luckily, I had an uncle living in London and I sent him a letter basically saying 'come get me, I'm drowning'. And he did, god bless him."
Leaving Italy behind, Peter came to England on a one-year working visa. With the little language skills he had, he could only find work as an odd job man in a hotel in Cornwall. But it was better than returning home.
"There were three reasons I left Italy; firstly I didn't want to follow in my father's footsteps, secondly there was still conscription at that time and I was required to go into the army for 18 months - no way was somebody going to put a gun in my hands. Lastly, for girls," he says with a decidedly mischievous grin.
Having out-stayed his visa, Peter spent the next four-and-a-half years effectively on the wrong side of the law, working here and there as a handy man, sometimes as a barman, and - if you believe him - frolicking with famers' daughters up and down the country. A turning point came when he scored a position as a domestic servant in London for an army colonel and his wife. Cooking, ironing and shaking cocktails at the many parties his employer would throw were all part of the job. "He was good man and he sat me down and said 'you're a bright boy, what are you doing working as a domestic'? After I explained my visa situation, the next day we went to see the immigration department."
On the strengths of his patron, Peter was freed of the constraints of his visa, and he now got a job as a sommelier in Stones Chop House, part of the Savoy Hotel Group in Soho, before opening its accompanying Pebble Bar with his brother. "They called us Mike and Ike," he laughs. "I was studying under Joe Gilmore who taught me everything he knew - he was a rascal, always gave me a hard time but I learnt my trade there."
His Brother soon left to become a photographer, but Peter would stay for the next 15 years, till 1980. "It was the best time of my life."
In those days the bars would open from 11am till 3pm then 5:30pm till 11pm, with most bartenders gathering in the intervening two-and-a-half hours to drink and play pool. But Pebble Bar was above the restaurant with its own door, so Peter would simply shut himself and his guests inside, settle down with a drink and tell them to go behind the bar themselves if they wanted something.
"I was an anti-conformist. Conformity is not part of my vocab. Anybody who was anybody was there in those days, we were just around the corner from the film industry in Wardour Street."
In 1965, Peter married his wife Kay, who has been his constant companion ever since. He says they complement each other perfectly: she an Aries, he a Gemini. But Peter is a bartender, an Italian and a complete flirt: he tells me we would be perfect together because I too am an Aries. It's all harmless banter though and it's easy to see how he wowed his customers with animated tales and his easy smiles.
After fifteen years at Pebble Bar, the bar was closed. Expecting a redundancy payment, he was instead offered a job at the Savoy hotel's American Bar.
Most modern generation bartenders have never seen Peter Dorelli behind the stick. "No one wants me there anymore, every time I come into a bar they always want to show me things, what do you think of this Mr Dorelli?"
But after 50 years of cocktails and bartending is he finally sick of it? "Are you joking? I love cocktails, I still make them. I don't know any job which comes close to this. The chefs are creators but then the plate leaves the kitchen and it's 'bye-bye'; the sommelier has an amazing palate and is knowledgeable but is not a creator. Bartenders have knowledge, a great palate, they are creators and they get to see people enjoying their work."
Trying to get a sense of Peter the bartender is difficult. Was there anything he never mastered? A long pause... "No, by the time I got to the American Bar I was only polishing my craft. To get to a certain level you have to have skills across the board. They always say Gemini are the jack of all trades. I don't mind to admit we're a bit shallow, bouncing from one thing to the next. But I refuse to accept this in the bar world, I studied it with precision and I was known as a perfectionist. I'm not of course, but everything can be improved."
Peter has a lengthy list of drinks he invented, mostly for special occasions, but he has always been known for his Dry Martinis, always stirred, never shaken. Except once.
"I remember Dudley Moore came in and everybody was basically chanting for him to play the piano. He refused, but it was getting rowdy. I pleaded with him, and eventually he looked at me and said he would do it - but only if I would shake him a Dry Martini. It was the only time I shook a Dry Martini. First and last. We did of course shake them for customers, but I would never do it personally."
He's finicky about the sounds of a bar as well, "[The Japanese] hard shake sounds awful, it needs to be rhythmic," he says, miming a shaker and the gentle noise it makes. He's proud of his bartending generation. "In my day bartenders had nothing, we did a lot with a small amount of ingredients. What the kids have on the shelves today... it's incredible."
In the bar that became an altar of classics, a bastion of elegance and refined luxury, Peter Dorelli was king. It was here he truly made a name for himself, where celebrities would brush shoulders with the extravagantly wealthy and guests would come for anniversaries, proposals and birthdays. But 'normal' people also ventured in too: "People can come in here intimidated, we make them relax."
Littered around the walls today are photographs from decades past - everyone from Elizabeth Taylor to . The only two people featured on its walls that he never met are Winston Churchill and Marilyn Monroe. But it was Richard Burton who managed to impress this bartender who has seen everything. "It was his voice," Peter says.
Rising up to become head bartender five years after joining, Peter quickly stamped his mark on the place. "When I took over I made bartenders become waiters as well. It's important the people on the floor know the drinks inside out. I would do a free-pour test at the start of the day and whoever poured exactly 50ml would get to work behind the bar. One day all five of them were spot on, so I said try 35ml."
Newcomers were told to put their ear next to the bar and asked if they heard its heartbeat. "This thing is alive," Peter says. "It changes, it evolves."
But despite the glamour of the place, not all its customers were so well-behaved. The seat we're sitting in, a window bay partially hidden from the rest of the room, has been a constant source of trouble. "Sometimes people were very naughty, it's a place where people exceed, so yes there was some exhibitionism. I've had to tell people to zip up and get out.
"Things changed for the worse when they changed the dress code. I'm not a snob but I said please do not do that, we're in the middle of the Strand which used to be the pits and the dress code kept it under control. You would have 50-year-old men putting their shoes on the seats. It would really annoy me and they would say 'do you know who I am'? 'You can be God as far as I'm concerned,' I would say. The dress code really did damage to this place."
Things changed again after Gordon Ramsay took over the Savoy Grill in 2003. Peter says Gordon would come to the door of the bar with Marcus Wareing and just stand there, not saying a word, assessing the space. "He never said so much as 'good evening', he just looked me up and down, so I told him to get out."
For Peter, it was time to go. Leaving the American Bar was an easy choice at this stage - after 23 years of enjoying his work, there came a day when he no longer wanted to do it. He was succeeded by his deputy Salim Khoury.
"Bartenders need someone to look up to," he says of today's creative bartenders.
So what has 50 years taught Peter Dorelli about bartending? Controversially, he believes the modern bartending scene over-utilises homemade infusions and liqueurs. "I've been in bars where 85 per cent of the menu are all signature cocktails, which customers can't reproduce. Their own bitters, their own infusions. It's arrogance. Where is the customer?"
He also doesn't agree with precisely measuring everything. "We free-poured, it's a generous gesture. I don't understand why these bartenders carefully measure everything out as if one drop with change a drink. Come on. What will one tenth do? And straw-testing a drink then saying 'mmm that's good'. Don't! If the customer doesn't like this drink what do they then say?" he says, mimicking a hunched-over bartender trying to jigger 5ml.
Peter has always been a man comfortable in his own skin: he believes bartenders need to develop their own style and personality and says that's the key to better customer relationships. "Bring yourself across in the bar. We've lost the importance of the person in front of you. Acknowledge them, understand their body language. Get over the whole 'I'm a creator.' It's ok bartender-to-bartender, one-upmanship is always healthy, but it does not belong behind the bar."
Since leaving the Savoy Peter has been impossibly busy. In addition to his educational role in the UKBG, he's served drinks when David Beckham launch his H&M range, he's made drinks for Rupert Murdoch and Tony Blair [yes, at the same time], he's a regular at bar shows around the world and a long-term judge for competitions including Diageo Reserve's World Class. Oh, and he's got his money on Boris for Prime Minister, in case you were wondering. So when will he truly retire?
Of course, he refuses to answer, simply stating where his shaker-shaped urn will lie: in the Dorelli tomb in Italy. "Until then I'm a bartender: I will die as a bartender."