Interview: bartender Salvatore Calabrese (Playboy Club)

Bartender London

Photo courtesy of Salvatore Calabrese

Over the years, native Italian and acclaimed bartender Salvatore Calabrese has worked in some of the most prestigious hotels in London, including Duke’s hotel and the Lanesborough Hotel. He currently presides over the program at his eponymous Salvatore at Playboy, an exclusive bar inside London’s Playboy Club. Yes, that Playboy. He recently consulted on the cocktail program at Mixology 101, a new lounge at the Original Farmers Market that L.A. based Joseph Brooke is managing. Calabrese, who goes by The Maestro, recently shared more spirited insights.

What’s your first cocktail memory, good or bad?

My first memories were good and bad. I was proud to have made my first Americano at the age of 12, but told off very soon after for making an incorrect Negroni.

Was it a given that you’d work with cocktails and spirits for a living, or did you consider other careers?

I wanted to join the merchant Navy and was studying navigation, but my hopes were cut short by an accident which severely damaged my sight in one eye. However, today I am a metaphorical Captain of my own ship!!!

What was your first bar job, and how did it come about?

It was a summer job at the age of 11 in a Hotel Bar in my hometown on the Amalfi Coast. Child slavery, but I learned a lot at an early age.

How did the opportunity come about with Mixology 101, and what was your approach with the cocktail menu and spirits list?

I was approached by my friend Robert Earl who I have worked with before, to design a menu which has a something for everyone and to cover a wide range of spirits, including locally produced and specialist products particularly Bourbon and Rye.

Would you say you’ve had any mentors over the years? If so, who, and what did they teach you?

My mentor was my very first boss ‘Signor Raffaello’ who introduced me to the theater of the bar and what it means to be a great host. For me he was like Humphrey Bogart’s character in the film Casablanca: impeccably smart. He knew exactly how to satisfy his guests’ needs, could speak several languages and could charm the socks of any woman – I definitely wanted to be him!! I hope that I have made him proud.

What do you want people to know you for as a bartender?

To be a great Mixologist, a great Bartender, and all of the above

What does a cocktail have to be if it goes on your menu at the Playboy Club?

It has to satisfy all the elements that I am looking for, it has to look good, satisfy the eyes, have a great aroma, satisfy the nose, and above all have a great taste which has to be distinctive, balanced and lingering.

What’s your top selling cocktail at the Playboy Club, and why do you think that’s the case?

My Spicy Fifty – it has been a top seller since I first created it. It ticks all the right boxes amd it’s a great journey for the taste buds – sweet at the beginning, sweet and sour on the middle palette and lingers at the end with the warmth of spice. Its a masterpiece!

Mixology 101 Spicy Fifty photo courtesy of Planet Dailies

As far as naming cocktails, what’s your approach?

Simplicity is always best, easy to remember.

What do you look for when you’re hiring a bartender?

Personality. It’s easy to teach people how to make a drink but they need the right attitude to be a good bartender.

What’s a great simple cocktail that you would suggest people make at home? What’s your preferred recipe?

I would suggest the Negroni – it is one of my favorite cocktails, simple to make and you don’t need any equipment.
1 part Gin, 1 part Martini Rosso, 1 part Campari, Straight on the rocks in an Old Fashioned glass with a slice of orange and stir.

How are you able to maintain balance in your life, if you’re even able to?

With great difficulty. I just try to make time for my family as well as my work, I am passionate about them both

Who’s somebody you’ve never worked with behind the bar that you would most like to work with?

Professor Jerry Thomas

Where and what do you like to drink when you’re not working?

I like to relax with a good Cognac, a good glass of wine with a meal and a Negroni as an aperitif.

If you could travel anywhere in the world right now, one city, primarily to drink cocktails and spirits, what would it be and why?

New Orleans, the birthplace of many great cocktails and home to great Jazz and fantastic people.

If you could only drink one more cocktail, what would be in the glass?

A Negroni

Finally, who would you let make it for you?

My best friend Peter Dorelli, former bar manager of the American Bar, Savoy Hotel where he resided for 40 years – a legend in our industry. As he likes to point out……a LIVING legend!!


Joshua Lurie

Joshua Lurie founded FoodGPS in 2005. Read about him here.

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