The bar-theater of Salvatore Calabrese

He is known worldwide as The Maestro for having revolutionized the beverage industry with elegance and mastery. Proud Maiorese, Londoner by adoption, tells us about his successful career in this interview.

By Anna Volpicelli

If he had lived in the 1700s, he would probably have been one of those revolutionary monks, experts in medicinal herbs, who in their laboratory experimented with meticulousness and dedication the perfect formula to create the liqueurs we still sip today. Instead, Salvatore Calabrese, aka The Maestro, brought the revolution to the world of mixology almost three centuries later.

A liveliness to be channeled

Maiorese by birth, in the 1980s he moved to London for love, and today he returns to his Coast to spend his vacations. “I began to take my first steps in the hospitality world in 1966. I was 11 years old. It was normal to see kids in bars to help the family at that time. Since I was very lively with a lot of energy, for the summer, my father had found me a job at the Hotel Reggina,” Calabrese tells us in a Skype conversation sitting in his studio in his London home surrounded by awards and shakers. His first task under the watchful eye of Mr. Raffaele, his first mentor and barman at the hotel, was to cut bread for breakfast and make coffee. “It was from that very first task assigned to me that I realized how meticulous I was. The slices of bread cut had to be all the same, and I worked hard to make sure they were,” he says, laughing in his now Anglo-Saxon accent, which fades when he speaks in dialect. 


The young Salvatore Calabrese with his mentor Raffaele at Hotel Reggina in Minori, courtesy of Salvatore Calabrese

The first mentor

Under Mr. Raffaele’s guidance, he understood the importance of relating to customers, putting everyone at ease and giving them space to express themselves, and then “bring in my sunshine,” he proudly emphasized. At Hotel Reggina, he learned one of the most important lessons of his life. “During the happy hour, guests would come to drink an Americano, a Martini, or a Negroni before going to dinner. I knew how to make Americano but had not yet tried my hand at Negroni. Mr. Raffaele, who had traveled the world and loved beautiful women, entertained two girls at the bar. Since a gentleman asked for a Negroni and I didn’t want to bother him, I made the cocktail for him. However, before giving the cocktail to the customer, Mr. Raffaele stopped me, took me by the arm, led me behind the bar, tasted the Negroni, slapped me on the head, and told me not to do things wasn’t yet prepared for. It was the beginning of my career.”

The experience as Maitre

The mistake turned into greater discipline and rigor. At 16, Salvatore was hired at the Hotel Panorama restaurant in Maiori, in the dining room. “If Mr. Raffaele initiated me into the art of hospitality, teaching me the techniques, at the Panorama Hotel, Mr. Guido taught me that kindness and a smile are fundamental in this profession, but that we are not servants, we are the masters of the house.” At the age of 21, the giant leap, he was promoted to Maitre. “I had 27 employees to manage, and some of them were the ones who had taught me the job. And that’s when I realized that you don’t have to earn respect with aggression, but you have to gain it with your work.”During his work at the Panorama Hotel, he met his wife, a Londoner who was vacationing in Maiori. “For a while, I kept traveling to join her in London, but then it was my mother who convinced me to move to England.”

Fortune kisses the tenacious.

Once in London, he was hired at Duke’s Hotel bar. “They were looking for a bartender, but I had more experience as a maitre. Since I’m stubborn, I convinced them to hire me until they could find a replacement.” But sometimes, chance plays in a good way. “After a few months, they found a bartender. On the first day of work, he made a flambé cocktail and almost burned a customer’s clothes. They fired him right away. On December 27, 1982, they officially hired me as a bartender.”


The Maestro’s portrait, courtesy of Salvatore Calabrese

History in a glass

At Duke’s Hotel, he shaped his concept of bar-theater “The bar is one of the greatest theaters of the world, a place for sociability, where people come to feel good.” There, he conceived his first significant innovation: the Liquid History, which marked his success and that of the bar. “Duke’s Hotel was one of the most historical places in London, and inspired by the setting, I came up with the idea of telling the story through the glass.” He began, then, to study more and to do some research. He participated in auctions and meeting collectors to purchase antique Cognac bottles. “I became fond of Cognac because it is one of the most refined and elegant distillates. I started this journey with a bottle dated 1914. I intended to narrate the historical events that occurred during those years through my cocktails”. A risk for sure, but it was well repaid. From that moment on, his name slowly made its way worldwide. “In a short time, the bar started to make from 500 pounds a week to 10 thousand. I intended to give a few people because obviously, these cocktails had a cost, an opportunity to taste and enjoy something unique. I was offering them an experience.”

From celebrities to Buckingham Palace

His elegance, creativity, and intuition traveled around the world very fast. Thanks to his talent, he earned the nickname of The Maestro. Among his clients, there are celebrities, including Sean Connery, Mick Jagger, Madonna, Sylvester Stallone, Robert De Niro, to name a few. “De Niro went to the bar, and I welcomed him at the door. He asked me Salvatore and told me he wanted to understand why everyone was telling him to try his cocktails. I suggested he take off his hat and sit down and that I would take care of everything”. Steve Wonder, “One night, he even started playing one of his songs at my bar. When he finished, he started clapping and said, ‘From one artist to another artist.’ It was a real honor.” His fame soon reached Buckingham Palace, and Prince Charles and Princess Margaret were his loyal customers. Even Queen Elizabeth noticed his talent “Queen Elizabeth is a Martini lover, and I often served her my Martini cocktail during some events.”


Salvatore Calabrese behind the bar, courtesy of Salvatore Calabrese

Dry Martini and worldwide fame

The Martini recipe is one of his most tremendous successes, which costs him a few headaches. “It took me five days to create this cocktail and find the right combination of dry and cold. I did it just to satisfy a demanding client, whom I didn’t know at the time, and who asked me for two martinis every day. And every time I served him one, he would tell me it was dry but not cold or vice versa. It gave me a headache. I couldn’t even sleep at night. In the end, I succeeded and also discovered the name of the client, Stanton Delaplane, a famous journalist, who defined my Martini as the best in the world”.

International Recognitions

He was then hired at the Lanesborough Hotel from Duke’s Hotel before opening his bar Salvatore at Fifty at the Fifty St.James Club, a brand that he then exported worldwide, opening bars in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and Hong Kong. Winner of numerous awards, including Legend of the Industry, Professional Excellence Award, in 2012, he broke the Guinness World Record with Salvatore’s Legacy, the most expensive cocktail in the world (5,500 pounds) that combines rare and ancient spirits. The author of 14 books, his The Complete Home Bartender’s Guide is still one of the industry’s bestsellers. “When I was young, my dream was to be a boat captain, but then life diverted me to another destination, hospitality, and I discovered a different way to be a captain.” 

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