Salvatore Calabrese: the Maestro talks the art of the bartender & hospitality

Steve McDermott with The Maestro, Salvatore Calabrese.

In August, the living legend and world-renowned bartender, Salvatore Calabrese, came to Australia for a series of workshops as part of the De Kuyper The Works program.

His career spans more than 40 years in the hospitality business, beginning in Maiori on Italy’s Amalfi Coast. He holds the record of creating the oldest cocktail in history and the world’s most expensive cocktail.

He’s also the creator of the world-famous Breakfast Martini and the Ultimate Dry Martini, and the undisputed thought leader of the cocktail and food pairing trend.

To interview the great man, though, we’ve tapped someone who knows him well. Steve McDermott is the bar manager at The Duke of Clarence, and an award-winning bartender in his own right.

That may have something to do with who is mentor was: none other than the Maestro himself.

McDermott began working for Calabrese in 2004, at Fifty St James in London, and stayed with him until 2010. Under Calabrese’s tutelage, McDermott would go on to be named the best bartender in the UK.

Steve McDermott: You’ve done Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth, Sydney, and for the first time De Kuyper The Works went to Adelaide.

Salvatore Calabrese: I must say I was very impressed with Adelaide — there were over 120 enthusiastic bartenders there, which was great.

What do you think of the Australian bar culture so far?

Very high, actually, I must say. You know how fussy I am. So, I wouldn’t just say it to say it. What I really love, and not because they recognise me when I walked in — because after so many years in the industry people will know who I am — but I could look around, [the bartenders] were very welcoming, looking for details, some of them were polished, some of them were not polished as bartenders, but overall they were really good bartenders. And to be honest with you, not second to Europe or the rest of the world. 

For those who weren’t lucky enough to attend, tell us a bit about your presentation?

Obviously, hospitality is a big thing for me. You worked with me for six years and you know what I’m all about.

That I do.

I was very pleased and honoured to take you from a barback position to the best bartender in the UK, you made me very proud. But you only reached that level because you understood what I want, and what bartending means. 

I think a lot today we seem to be going further into a mixologist world, bartenders are by far better than what I would ever be as a mixologist, but it seems to really go beyond and the expectation is to be creative, so definitely they are artists at work. But I always say to be a great mixologist doesn’t make you great, right? 

To be a great bartender you have to learn to be two things: the art of the mixologist, which you have learned, and the art of hospitality which you have learned. And you’re able to put those two hands together and embrace them. 

That means caring, providing great drinks, service hospitality, and love, passion — now you can call yourself a great bartender. And this is one of the things that I’m talking about in my presentation. Obviously, one of the reasons I chose to come here, and I’m pleased that De Kuyper asked me to talk about after dinner cocktails, because when I started in this industry in 1966, it was the time of la dolce vita — when people were dressing up, when people were elegant, people would make an effort to go out. 

It was a celebration moment to go out, and really feel special. But one thing that I learned as I grew up in the bartending world, I have learned the 24-7 — which many bartenders have missed today. What do I mean about the 24-7? Any time of the day there is a good excuse to know how to drink. The first thing you open up the bar in the morning, you’ll have someone who has not necessarily come for a Bloody Mary as a pick me up, they could come for a bullshot; at any lecture I have done, any time I say have any of you made a Bullshot or a Bloody Bull, they are always totally surprised. It’s a true classic— they don’t know how to start the day.

There is no culture for pre-lunch, for pre-dinner, the aperitif — I mean I lived that. But the most important thing, especially in the 80s, was the culture of the after-dinner drink. People would come and have the ultimate encounter: the nightcap. Before you go to bed. And what was that? [For one] after-dinner drink is the most profitable time you can make money, because you use more refined spirits, more than white spirits, and two, if you had far too much to eat, there is nothing more beautiful than a Stinger. A great digestif after dinner. It should really relax your digestion.

The Maestro, Salvatore Calabrese.

A few years ago, you wrote Classic After Dinner Cocktails. You travel a lot, where do you see these drinks as a category?

I don’t see it. I open up every menu that I see, and 99.9% of the menus — you remember when you worked for me—

There used to be an entire chapter [of after dinner cocktails].

We had a menu designed for any need — from Champagne cocktails, to a Martini-style cocktail, to long and refreshing, to short and sublime, to the after-dinner. It was a section. So there was a good excuse to to know what to choose. Instead today, I understand the menus are smaller. A bartender told me while he was chatting, he embraced me and was so excited, and he said I was really pleased I came today and listened to you. I asked why? And he said he doesn’t have any liqueurs in his bar. I don’t have liqueur in my bar. 

This is terrible, because a great liqueur can be the centre of great cocktails, and why? 

You know because we all make homemade [nowadays].

There has been a shift in recent times to these dry, bitter, and sour flavours, people are moving away from sweeter drinks. Do you think after-dinner cocktails need a bit of a modern makeover? Or is the category due for a comeback?

I think the category is due for a comeback because there is nothing more beautiful to finish with than a nice, earthy, sublime, subtle after-dinner drink. A Brandy Alexander, a Stinger. Now we as a modern bartender, we pick up the twist of classics, our own interpretations, so one can have their own interpretation of after-dinner cocktails. After all, we have a big selection of whisky, a big selection of brandy — why can’t we? Why not? It’s something that has a reason, it’s not like you start at six o’clock with a Negroni, like I do, and then finish with a Negroni or a Martini. Why finish with the same drink that you started with?

We are very amaro and aperitif-obsessed in Australia, we love our coffee and bitter flavours.

Bitters — great after-dinner drinks are made with bitters. It’s a big misconception, if you look at any old cocktail book, any of these young bartenders who read the old books, 30-40 percent of recipes are dedicated to brandy, and brandy is an after-dinner drink. There’s some incredible recipes, which have bitter, but bitter is a digestif, not an aperitivo — because bitter, there is this perception that because you use a Fernet Branca in a pre dinner drink, pre dinner, pre dinner, the modern perception is it’s the ultimate encounter with a bitter. And bitter and crème de menthe, Corpse Reviver — a great drink. Hanky Panky, would you call that an aperitivo, or would you call it an after dinner drink? You know, there is a perception about how you want to use bitter., you can have it many different ways if you want, it just brings something a little more earthy to the drink. Let’s use something that seems to be taboo, a cognac, which cognac is one of the by far noblest spirits that there is, right, it gives you a linger essence, gentle spice, wonderful notes that you need to know how to work with. You know, it’s anything that you want to do and how you want to do it. You can use the same as an after dinner drink.

You’ve got something new to talk about, too.

You know De Kuyper has been behind my bar shelf for years and years and years, from Fifty to The Library Bar, because I believe it is an incredible liqueur because it uses all the natural ingredients, and actually I’m very proud of them because they’re giving me the opportunity to bring my own liqueur — Acqua Bianca, I’ll ask every Australian bartender to shout for it. It’s an incredible liqueur which has a citron note, which has three style of citrus.When I made this partnership with De Kuyper, I was humbled and I was honoured, and they said I could do whatever I want. I started to think about what is in the market today, we’ve got a nutty flavour, bitter flavours, citrus flavours — what was I missing? 

I started looking for inspiration in a very old book in my collection. I’m flicking through, and find this recipe, and in this recipe there was some incredible ingredients and I play with that. My liqueur is called Aqua Bianca (white water) it looks like an orgeat colour, and my daughter, I’m very proud, she designed the label for me. In this liqueur there’s three citrus: essence of lemon from the Amalfi coast, where I come from; essence from citron, the very big citrus lemon, and then bergamot, my cousin owns one of the biggest lands for bergamot in Calabria, and I’m Calabrese, and strangely enough bergamot was in this recipe two hundred years ago. Then fresh mint flavours, so it’s fresh, it’s got a floral note from rose, and it’s got an incredible, unique element: I brought the sea into the land. Something which is used in perfumery, ambergris. I thought that if the finest perfumes in the world use ambergris, then why not? Ambergis is not cheap, but I tell you it absolutely blows your mind. 

What’s your personal favourite after dinner cocktail — a modern and a classic?

I am very pleased I came out with the Alexander Big Sister, which is a twist on the classic Alexander. Because Alexander was made with gin, so what I did, I used Rutte Celery gin, fresh cream obviously, and white chocolate liqueur, and then I put a little freshness with four or five leaves of mint, and shake, break the mint down, and strain it: it’s beautiful, it’s very seductive and fresh.

And then the other one is Addicted To Love. Basically I started with cognac and a great after dinner drink is always seductive. So what I did was I used cognac as my base, I put mandarin liqueur inside to give it that citrus note and sweet essence, then I put egg white, kumquat — gently muddle the kumquat because I want that bitter citrus note, to break the skin. And then a teaspoon of fig preserve or marmalade. Figs are the symbol of love. I shake it with egg white and it tastes absolutely wonderful.

And my favourite classic is the Stinger.

I want to run through a bit of your career.

Well I was a very young bartender, I started at the age of 11, in 1966, on the Amalfi coast. 

But you wanted to work with boats?

My real dream was to be in the navy, and I started going to college for the navy, and every two years you have to take a physical test — I was a bit of no fear [person], and I used to get into a lot of trouble, and one day I got into the trouble that I shouldn’t have gotten into. I finished off with glass in my eyes, cut my eyes, and left me almost blind. I had an unfortunate incident. So I see very little from my left eye. Because of that I failed the physical test. I joined the navy and they didn’t take me. 

So I decided to embrace my second career. And I’m pleased I did.

I think we’re all pleased you did.

But today I am captain of my own boat.

And I’m still waiting to get an invite onto it. Tell me about a very young photo of you on the dust jacket of Classic Cocktails, pouring two Coca-Colas — can you tell us where that was?

That was the Summer book. My mama used to keep a picture of me, and I said to her do you remember that photo those gentlemen took of me when I was 12 behind the bar? Even at 12 years old I’m double pouring.

I was quite blessed. When I started in this industry at the age of 11, I managed to work with a real pro — Señor Rafeal, who worked all round the world, in America, he travelled. In the 1960s he decided to come back to the Amalfi coast. He could speak several languages, he could charm the socks off any woman, and he taught me a few lessons: how to use the shaker, how to be charming, how to read people. 

But also I learned how to make the Americano, when I was 12. But one thing he didn’t want me to do, is that one day he was talking to two beautiful women, he’s charming the socks off these women, and the gentleman asked me for a Negroni — I didn’t know what to do. I asked Señor Rafael how to make a Negroni, and interrupted him — I saw him doing this so many times, I decided to make the Negroni — a very cocky bastard— but before I served the Negroni, he stopped me, picked up the drink and took me round the back and gave me a gentle slap and said don’t do what you’re not old enough to do. And whenever I make a Negroni, which is my favourite cocktail, I do two things: I pray, and I duck, just in case he’s behind me with a slap.

He definitely had a huge influence on you.

I was flabbergasted, I was totally in love with what he used to do, how he used to do it. I remember his impeccable cream jacket, at all times. With him, I had to groom my hair, I had to polish my shoes—

I remember working on shift with you and you’d run your finger up my face to see if I shaved.

[Laughs}

Hosting was an important thing to Señor Rafael, right? When people ask me about what it was like to work with you, I always say he’s the greatest host you’ll ever meet.

I love people. You know me Stevie, I always say that what is important in my home, is that everybody is happy. I really embrace that. But it’s not just the customer should be happy. For me, my passion, whenever I do something, I look for my internal customer, and my external customer. My internal customer is my team, because I can only be as good as my team is, so making sure that you feel happy and are belonging to that place, means so much, so that you strive and so you don’t feel ike it’s just another fucking day at work. And between each other, if you were sick you would call your friend, your colleague, to go and work for you because they would feel guilty if they didn’t.

You embrace what you do. So if you’re happy, it reflects to the customer on the outside, the true customer, the one who pays for our roof. I always say, there are two styles of management: those who are about me and you and do what I want, you’re not important — you’re a number — and then there is the other type of management which is me with you. That means I embrace you, let’s work together, because you make my job easier.  

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