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Publication: London Clubs Magazine, Summer 2005

Salvatore Calabrese is the World’s Best Barman

What Salvatore Calabrese can’t tell you about the lore, practice and protocol of cocktail mixing just isn’t worth knowing. As head barman at London’s newest member’s bar, the salubrious Salvatore At Fifty on St James’s Street, this flamboyantly talented Italian himself inspires a cocktail of superlatives: he is determined in his outlook, daring in his creativity, magnetically charming in the flesh. In a nutshell, he is quite possibly London’s world’s greatest barman.

Calabrese will regale you with vignettes about those who have enjoyed his legendarily slick hospitality – a cast-list as varied as Cindy Crawford, Stevie Wonder, Nelson Mandela, Fidel Castro, Ashley Judd and Her Majesty the Queen (who returned promptly for a second Martini cocktail, signalling the kind of approval that really matters). He will eulogise ‘Liquid History’ – a idea of his own conception in which guests experience the past in the form of his vintage cognac collection. He will defy convention at every opportunity. And most vitally, he will ensure you leave his bar satisfied, delighted and, it’s likely, resolved never to set foot in a Weatherspoons ever again.

Calabrese’s repertoire is a broad as his CV is long. His vital statistics tell their own tale: he began working in the licence trade at the age of 11, and by 21 was the Amalfi coast’s youngest maitre d’. Over the past 20 years he has resuscitated the Duke’s Hotel bar and The Lanesborough’s Library Bar, establishing a gilt-edged reputation for service and style en route. He has shifted over half a million copes of his nine books. Behind the bar at Salvatore at Fifty lie an epicurean selection of 338 spirits - whiskys dating to 1913, rums from as long ago as 1934. If you have a spare £1,500, Calabrese will pour you a glass of cognac distilled in the year before the French Revolution.

His experience and vision coalesce into the ‘grand minimalist’ ambience of Salvatore at Fifty, where his insistence that cocktail mixing is a form of artistry emerges as a tangible reality, rather than as a far-fetched contrivance. ‘A chef is an artist at work - he will use his plate as a canvas,’ Calabrese insists. ‘A barman is also an artist, I will use that glass as my canvas.’

It is more than his close resemblance to Peter Sellers that makes meeting Calabrese an unforgettable experience - and you have little choice about meeting him once you skip up the steps and through Fifty’s door. It’s instead an élan and a conviction he brings to the task which, it’s safe to say, few outside of Italy could match.

‘You have to understand what cocktail is,’ he theorises. ‘It must satisfy three senses: the eyes, the nose and the palate. Image, aroma and taste. Let’s be Italian about this - if you see a beautiful women walk into a bar, everybody stops and looks. Then there is this wonderful perfume that makes you fly towards her. But the tastes is the most important thing of all - if she doesn’t taste good when you kiss her it will be a disappointment.’

His own cocktails display the same adventurousness and intensity that’s palpable in even the briefest encounters with the man who makes them. Is that coriander in my glass? Consommé bouillon? Chilli? And how come it tastes so good?

The overarching flavour, in fact, is of Salvatore’s enthusiasm for cocktails. ‘I think - sometimes I even dream - about cocktails long before I begin to mix them,’ he concludes. ‘When I love in something, I go to any excess or challenge to fulfil it. If you see this place – the bottles, the glassware, the arrangement of furniture, the cocktails – these are all the things that I believe in.’
On this side of Piccadilly in 2005, it’s Salvatore Calabrese’s world - we just drink it in.

The High Five

The Spicy Fifty
Vanilla Stolichnaya
Dash of Lime juice
1 Bird’s Eye chilli
A cocktail with truly internationalist character - cultures collide inside a highball glass. The smooth edges of vanilla, vodka and honey fuse with fragrant coriander and tangy lime – and yes, that is a whole bird’s eye chilli floating on top. ‘This has a real intensity to it,’ Calabrese enlarges. ‘It was inspired idea by an Asian restaurant that opened up near the bar. I was fascinated by the fusion, and this has a spiciness and a sweetness to it - the key with the Spicy Fifty is balance between the two.’

The Breakfast Martini
Lemon juice
Tsp Marmalade.
‘This is my one of my signature cocktails,’ Calabrese says. ‘It has the natural spiciness of juniper, Cointreau gives it sweetness and lemon juice sharpens the drink. The final ingredient is a touch of marmalade. I never eat breakfast, and my wife always says, ‘Have something to eat, you need energy,’ but I can’t be bothered. One day she gave me some toast with marmalade on it - I had never encountered the bitter flavour. It blew my mind, so I took the marmalade to work and created the Breakfast Martini. I think I may have immortalised myself with this drink. You can go anywhere in the world and find the Breakfast Martini.’

Fifty St James
Seven-year-old Havana Club rum
Lemon juice
Guava syrup
Guava juice
One of Calabrese’s most popular cocktails – and a signature he created for Salvatore At Fifty – the Fifty St James matches dark spirit with the sweetness of guava and the bitter notes of the Campari, served over ice in a highball. Salvatore detects a resurgence in the popularity of darker spirits. ‘People are asking more and more for dark spirits,’ he says. ‘With all the uncertainty in the world, they are smooth, warm and comforting. Bartenders need to understand the importance of the dark spirits.’ Calabrese recommends this long, smooth cocktails as an after-dinner drink.

The Bull Shot
Lemon juice
Consommé bouillon
Worcestershire sauce
Celery Salt
Calabrese is frequently asked what time in the day it is acceptable to have a drink. ‘How long is a piece of string?’ he often replies. ‘If you’ve had a heavy night, have a hair the dog that bit you. Bloody Mary can be a great drink to start the day with. But even better is the Bullshot – vodka, lemon juice, consommé bouillon, Worcestershire sauce, hint of Tabasco, celery salt. It’s almost like soup in glass – yet it is very refreshing. Add tomato juice to make it a Bloody Bull.’

Melon Fizz
Crème de Melone
Infusion of Melone
There may be few instances which the demand the use of the world ‘nectareous’, but Calabrese’s evolution of the Melon cocktail is not merely apt but mandatory. The infusion of melone, meanwhile, is all own work - he created the liqueur at a friend’s distillery on the Amalfi coast, and has also concocted infusions of wild strawberry, limoncello, raspberry and fennel. ‘This is a very unusual cocktail, but it is also extraordinarily popular. It’s is one of our best-sellers.’

© Kevin Braddock, 2005


All content ©2004 Kevin Braddock

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