The Maestro, Salvatore Calabrese

From the archives our interview with Salvatore Calabrese, one of the cover stars of The Cocktail Lovers magazine:

Don’t ask how we managed to get The Maestro to give us time to discuss his soon-to-be-opened bar Salvatore’s at The Playboy Club as well as getting him to answer Our Favourite Barmen questionnaire, but we did. In between tweaking the design of the bar, devising the new menu and creating a whole new cocktail concept, he allowed The Cocktail Lovers to step into his magical world of liquid history.

Part 1

What does Playboy mean to you?

It’s one of the most iconic names there is. I grew up with it and remember seeing the famous Playboy Club on Park Lane. I never went but I always thought Playboy was about glamour and the rich and famous having a good time.

And the Bunnies?

Of course the Bunnies are a huge part of the Playboy image but they’re not about sex, to me  they epitomise glamour.

New look Playboy Club

How does it feel to be teaming up with London Clubs again after the demise of Salvatore at Fifty?

We’re very good friends and London Clubs were always very honest with me. My bar was very profitable, it became recognised as one of the best in the world. London Clubs are a great company and because of our relationship, we are able to work together on this incredible project.

There was a rumour that you would be taking over the big job at The American Bar at The Savoy, were you interested and was it ever in the offing?

I was never interested in heading up the American Bar. I enjoy hotels – I worked at Dukes and The Lanesborough both for a very long time, 12 and 10 years respectively. But after Fifty I’ve developed a taste for my own bar and it’s great to do my own thing.

How will Salvatore’s differ from Fifty, or will it be a continuation?

It’s a bit of both. You can’t close a door and forget about it but my new bar will have a definite twist. It’ll have all of the 1960s and 1970s glamour of Playboy with a few new, exciting touches. The back bar is going to be very magical, very theatrical and there’s going to be a cabinet that everyone will talk about! I have also developed a new concept of service at the table, it’s unlike anything around at the moment.

What will the drinks list be like?

If I tell you, I’ll have to kill you! It’s all very top secret but there will be some of the old favourites alongside a lot of new creations, that’s all I can say for the right now.

Part 2

Where did you learn your craft?

I started working in a bar in my home town of Maiori in Italy as a young boy aged 11.  I would clean the bar and make coffee, it was a way to earn pocket money and keep out of trouble. My shift started at 5am, which taught me discipline and the bar was hosted by Signor Raffaello a magical person who was like Humphrey Bogart’s character in Casablanca. He spoke many languages, charmed everyone, knew the art of hosting and how to make things happen. I wanted to be just like him.

Name a few of the places you’ve worked.

I’ve worked in a number of places but most famous are Dukes Hotel, The Lanesborough and Salvatore at Fifty.

Who’s the most inspiring person you’ve worked with and why?

I’ve been lucky enough to have encountered a number of inspiring people throughout my life and I’ve soaked up everything like a sponge but I think I am the best host there is! I created Liquid History at Dukes and made the bar very famous and very profitable, I’ve created drinks like the Breakfast Martini and Spicy Fifty, written books, served some of the biggest stars, from Sean Connery to The Rolling Stones and I’m renowned for being one of the best barmen in the world.

What makes a good bartender?

I’m not particularly interested in what a bartender knows when I’m looking to recruit someone; I look for the passion and charisma. With those ingredients you can learn to be a good bartender. To me, the most important aspect of being a good bartender is having the ability to appreciate the art of hosting. Service and reading the customer’s body language are absolutely paramount.

Which bartenders do you admire and why?

Peter Dorelli is one of my best friends and he’s an incredible person who’s inspired many people. Likewise Guiliano Morandin at The Dorchester, again, he’s an incredible host.

What’s your proudest moment as a bartender?

I’ve had so many it’s hard to pinpoint a single one. I’ve had the pleasure of serving everyone from Her Majesty The Queen to Nelson Mandela but two occasions stand out. The first was when I had my bar Salvatore at Fifty, Robert De Niro came to the bar and asked, “Who is Salvatore?” I told him I was. “What’s so special about you?” he replied. “Step inside and find out,” I said and we had an incredible evening.

The other very special moment was when I was heading up The Library Bar at The Lanesborough. Stevie Wonder was a guest and I created a special cocktail for him called the Champagne Wonder. After he’d had a few he started swaying his head to the music and as we had a piano in the bar,  I asked him if he wanted to play. He did and performed live for half an hour.  It was an incredibly special evening and at the end, I thanked him for his performance. To my surprise he started to applaud me saying, “from one artist to another.” He appreciated my cocktail creations as much as I did his incredible performance. That was a moment I’ll always remember.

Shaken or stirred?

Definitely stirred. When you shake you bruise the spirit, turning it cloudy – a dirty drink is never beautiful. I like stirring for the clean, fresh drink it produces. In fact, I was asked to be in the James Bond film Casino Royale but I refused because I would never shake a Martini.

What’s your favourite drink

To mix:

The Martini. I’m known as the King of the Cocktail and the Martini is one of my key drinks.

To drink:

The Negroni

On your menu:

I can’t tell you, not yet!

What’s your definition of a bartender and a mixologist and where do you fit in?

Mixology is a great word but I think there’s confusion about what a bartender stands for. A bartender is your friend, an artist, a performer, a host – to be a good bartender which I believe I am, you have to implement all of these factors. The glass is your canvas and the drink inside is the art. A great bartender is like a doctor, someone you can talk to who will listen to your problems, mix you a good drink and make you feel better when you leave. I am proud to say I see myself as a bartender.

What’s your favourite ingredient?

I work with every ingredient as I believe each has its own particular quality but if I have to choose one, I’d say cognac, it’s a beautiful spirit.

Where do you drink off duty?

The Dorchester, China Tang, Milk & Honey and my son’s bar, The Hoxton Pony – it has a really good atmosphere and I’m not just saying it because he’s my son, it really does have some good drinks on the menu.

What’s your essential piece of  bar kit?

My shakers, they’re my musical instrument! In fact, all of my bar tools are like instruments to me, they’re an important part of my act.

What’s your failsafe recipe to mix at home?

I’m so boring – my wife has to make gin and tonics! Usually I serve wine or champagne at home.

If you could mix a cocktail for anyone alive or dead, who would it be and why?

I’ve already mixed for everybody I’d like to; the greatest thing for me is to mix for people who enjoy the drink I have created.

What’s your definitive cocktail to add to our collection:

The Spicy Fifty

The Breakfast Martini

Salvatore at Playboy Club London, 14 Old Park Lane, W1K 1ND. T: 020 7491 8546. playboyclublondon.com.

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