Salvatore Calabrese is renowned as one of the finest and most famous bartenders in the world. ‘The Maestro’ as he’s affectionately known has been mixing drinks ever since he was eleven with his first summer job in his native home on the Amalfi Coast, and half a decade later he’s still going strong. In his storied career, Salvatore has created multiple modern classic cocktails, served up the world’s oldest cocktail and rubbed shoulders with royalty and every A-list celeb worth mentioning.
Ahead of the launch of his delicious new luxury liqueur Aqua Bianca, we took the chance to catch up with Salvatore to talk about his celebrated life in the industry, what it takes to become a truly great bartender and which famous faces have turned up at his bars looking to sample some ‘Liquid History’.
The MALESTROM: Where did your passion for cocktails initially come from?
Salvatore Calabrese: It all started for me in 1966 when I was eleven years old. In those days it was not unusual to see a child working behind a bar or in a restaurant in the summer season. I come from the Amalfi Coast, a village called Maiori. I was a bit of a wild boy at 11, so my Dad decided to find me a little job. And my first summer job was in this charming little family-run place that’s still there today, Hotel Reginna.
My day started at 6 am in the hotel restaurant slicing bread for the guests. That was where I began to learn how to be precise, as every piece of bread had to be the same thickness. Then I used to go down to the hotel bar and switch on the coffee machine for 8 am and then clean the bar and wait for Signor Raffaello, my very first mentor. He was like Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca, with his impeccable cream jackets, and was very knowledgable after travelling the world. He used to know how to make sure that everyone’s dream became reality.
TM: He was a big inspiration then?
SC: He was. He could speak several languages and could charm the socks off any woman. I definitely wanted to be him in that respect. He was the first person to inspire me around hospitality and taught me how to make my very first Americano. I was allowed to make them, but couldn’t touch the Negroni. One day he was chatting with two beautiful ladies and a gentleman asked me for a Negroni, I was 12. I didn’t want to disturb Signor Raffaello, so I thought how hard can it be?
So, I started to make the drink, he noticed I was doing something and allowed me to finish making the Negroni before taking the drink away from me and giving me a gentle slap. He said, “do not do something that you’re not truly old enough to do, have respect”. And from this day on I do two things when I make a Negroni. First I pray and cross myself and I also duck in case he’s behind me to give me another slap. Today the Negroni is one of my favourite drinks.
TM: That was obviously a fantastic grounding and then you’ve spent the majority of your career over here in the UK…
SC: I’d actually always wanted to be the captain of a ship. I went to naval school, but unfortunately at the age of 17 I had an injury that left me almost blind in my left eye, so I couldn’t join the Navy and I had to choose to do what I was doing in my second career, working in hospitality. After working in the bar from 11 to 16 I moved into the restaurant and by the age of 21, I was the youngest maître d’ on the Amalfi Coast.
But then I met my wife and in the 80s I started to come to London and ultimately decided to make a go of it here. My wife found a job advert in the Evening Standard for The Duke’s Hotel, they were looking for a bartender. So, I went for the interview and got the job and was there from 1982 to 1994, and I made the bar what it is today. I came up with the unique idea of selling Liquid History. The bar was so small I couldn’t work with quantity, so I went for quality.
TM: Tell us about Liquid History. It was an amazing initiative to come up with…
SC: When I was at Duke’s at that time, before the extensions, there were only six tables. So if you had 20 people in there it was full. I used to work on commission with very small wages, so I had to think about what I could do to get the takings up. I’ve always been a believer in marketing and thought Duke’s is a historical name, in a historical city, but the one thing lacking behind the bar was a bit of history. That’s when I had this crazy idea to sell to people based on a experience, Liquid History.
I couldn’t sell wine as that oxidizes quickly and has a short life, so it had to be spirits. At the time cognac was very in, everyone would ask for one at the end of the night. So, I researched old bottles, and I mean really old, back to the time of Napoleon, and went to auction houses, spoke with collectors, then I convinced the owner to back me up on my idea.
My very first bottle was from 1914, an exceptional year for cognac. I sold that for £25 a glass, a lot for those days, and quickly proved there was an appetite for this. I took the takings of that little bar from £500 per week to £10,000.
TM: The manager must have been happy with you Salvatore?
SC: Of course they were happy, I was happy as well! Everyone started to come so they could try something unique and people started writing about it. Business people loved it as they could offer something totally unique to the client they were looking to impress.
They could drink something from the time of the French Revolution in 1789 or from when the Constitution of the United States was established in 1787. The concept grew with me and I branched out to rare whiskies and rare rum, some of which I wish I’d kept to this day. I can truly say I was the pioneer of making vintage cocktails.
TM: And you mixed the world’s most expensive cocktail…
SC: Not only that, but most important to me, it was the world’s oldest cocktail in the world. There were 730 years worth of history in one drink. Someone can always make a more expensive cocktail, but in my lifetime I don’t think anyone will make an older one.
TM: Where did your nickname ‘The Maestro’ come from?
SC: I think at Duke’s I did two things. I proved I could create a place known around the world as an establishment. I came up with Liquid History, but the fame that came and remains there today is when I came up with what I call the Direct Martini, a super dry, super cold Martini that the Duke’s still does today.
I always say it took God six days to create the perfect world, it took me five to create the perfect Martini. Only to please and meet the expectations of a consumer, who after I found out was the famous writer Stanton Delaplane. He immortalised me and my Martini to be one of the best in the world. From then on the fame came and people came to drink that drink.
But ‘The Maestro’ name really started from The Lanesborough. I started there at the library bar in 1994, I had a team and we had a lot of fun. Because of my knowledge of the role, out of respect, the bartenders there started to call me ‘The Maestro’. Then the people in the industry started to call me by that name and it carried on from there.
TM: What’s the cocktail you’re most proud of creating?
SC: What I’m most proud of is to create a legacy of what it really means to be a bartender. To do things with care and love. I’ve been fortunate in my career that I’ve fulfilled the dreams of every bartender, to have my own bar, to write books (including the best selling cocktail book in the world) and to immortalise myself with a cocktail, which in a hundred years time somebody will still be talking about. I can say I did that with several of my cocktails, but the one that everybody knows is my Breakfast Martini that I created in 1996.
TM: What makes a good bartender? What are the required qualities?
SC: Today in our industry, bartenders are stars and they are true artists at work. I think many bartenders can kick my backside when it comes to mixology, although I believe sometimes simplicity is the best chemistry. Becoming Heston Blumenthal behind the bar and using lots of chemistry doesn’t make you great. Two be great needs two things. On one hand, there is the art of mixology, you can be the best in the world, but that doesn’t give you the right to be called a bartender. You have to understand the other thing about what a bar is.
A bar is a theatre where people want to be entertained. But it is also a church where people can come and confess.
What makes a great bartender is knowing how to care. After all, a bar is a social place, people stand and meet. People should never be left on their own. It doesn’t matter how busy a bar is, you should welcome guests and even help them mingle. Maybe you could meet your future wife? I’ve done that for people a few times.
So, this is what makes a great bartender, caring. It’s an incredible job because every day is different and every day a new person comes through your door. And every day you have an opportunity to make a difference, but not necessarily to make a difference with a drink.
TM: Is that your favourite part of the job, the element of looking after people?
SC: It is. I have two types of clientele that I care for. My team and the people in front of me. If my team are happy they are is a true reflection to the people in front. You don’t have to distinguish, I’ve met a lot of very famous people, I’ve served all the royal members, at one time I used to be known as the royal bartender.
I’ve met presidents from Fidel Castro to Nelson Mandela, to anyone who’s anyone in entertainment. It doesn’t really matter, when they come to my home, it’s my home. You have to make that person feel comfortable and not just because of who they are.
TM: Have you ever been starstruck by anyone who’s walked into your bar?
SC: Of course. Listen, I’ve written thirteen books. One that I’d like to write is about the people, but it’s a book that I cannot write because what happens in a bar should stay in a bar.
TM: Is it right Stevie Wonder once played piano for you in one of your bars?
SC: Yes Stevie… I could name so many people, Rober De Niro, one of my heroes, Sylvester Stallone, Arnie, The Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney a crazy Ozzie Osbourne, they’ve all been around my bars. I’ve been very lucky. But Stevie was a bit special. We are friends. There is one story from when he came to my bar. I had my pianist playing, I’d created a drink for Stevie called Champagne Wonder, we had a few of them and were listening to the music, then I invited him to play the piano, and he was delighted to do so.
You can imagine how magical it was for the people in my bar, to listen to Stevie Wonder live for half an hour. I mean you can’t write the script. What was even more magical for me was at the end of the night when he stood up to leave and I went to say goodbye he started to applaud. I said, “what’s that for?” He said, “from one artist to another”. And that’s what we can be. If we love what we do, we can be just as big a star as the biggest in the world.
TM: Tell us about your new luxury liqueur – Acqua Bianca. How did that come about?
SC: De Kuyper, my partner, asked me if I was interested in creating a liqueur. So I started to dream, like you do. I wanted to create something very unique. I didn’t want to make another liqueur full of herbal, or nutty, or chocolate flavours like a lot currently on the market. To be unique you need some kind of inspiration.
I have a library with a collection of old and antique books. In one book in particular, I found an old recipe from the 1700s in which there was an interesting ingredient – Ambergris. So, I started to research ambergris and discovered that it was heavily used in perfumery. It comes from whales, it was meant to give you medical help, almost like an aphrodisiac. I decided it would be an incredible ingredient to make my liqueur the most romantic liqueur in the world.
I thought of using the best lemons in the world from the Amalfi Coast along with bergamot, I wanted a balance between citrus and sweetness. I needed a floral note so I added rose, the flower of love and then peppermint for freshness and the ambergris. They’re all natural ingredients.
Ambergris is so expensive, if you find some floating you’ve found a big golden nugget. One kilo is worth six to seven thousand pounds. You can imagine what they first said when I went to De Kuyper and told them I wanted to use ambergris and the aroma of petal of rose, two very expensive ingredients.
With the finest spirits in the world, it’s the aroma that takes you on a different journey, it’s very important. When you taste Acqua Bianca it takes you on a journey of flavour, the freshness of the citron, the hint of bitter, the peppermint freshness, the floral note and all of this lingers in the aftertaste, but it doesn’t stick, it gently disappears.
And I love that it’s so versatile. Usually, white liqueur goes with white spirits and dark with dark. But this one can be the centre stage of any cocktail. It can be used with darker spirits for a twist on the Stinger, what I think is the ultimate after-dinner drink. To something with a white spirit like a Grasshopper. There’s nothing out there like it, I’m so chuffed.
TM: We like to finish by asking for a piece of wisdom if anything comes to mind?
SC: Never lose your smile. I think the smile is the key to many, many open doors. Without a smile, there is no soul. It’s almost an embrace, it says welcome.
Acqua Bianca is available to enjoy in The Donovan Bar at Brown’s Hotel & from their website: https://www.acqua-bianca.com
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