Salvatore Calabrese at The Cromwell, Las Vegas
The master bartender discusses what it means to make a signature cocktail menu around the world
There are few people in the spirits world with a name as recognizable as Salvatore Calabrese. Yes, he held the world record for most expensive cocktail (pricey because of the rare, vintage cognac he used dating back to 1778). But more importantly, his work has spanned over half a century and several countries. Calabrese is a martini master, who went so far as to invent the now-famed Breakfast Martini, frequently voted one of the top ten new modern classics. Altogether, his imagination, and belief in "liquid history" (a concept that implores people to seek out vintage spirits and ingredients) have lead to signature cocktail menus the world over. We met up with him at his latest endeavor, the old world-style Bound in Las Vegas' boutique hotel The Cromwell.
For Calabrese, it comes down to process and inspiration when developing a signature menu. "When I start to think about my next new home, I ask myself what will the world want to enjoy? Hospitality. Secondary, I want it to be something of mine. Of me, or a note that makes me. What will the concept be? For example, the concept here needs to be for the world and for Las Vegas," he shares with CH. "For a menu I need to add something everyone will recognize, a classic. Then I think of the new style of modern bartenders, and play with that. Finally, I think on something completely unique." And this is just the start.
"Then I start to dream," he continues. "It's a dream zone. That lead me here. I thought, what does Vegas not do? Sleep. When people are here for two or three days, they do not want to get in bed.They want to stay awake. So, for me, I thought to give them a sophisticated way to stay awake. I created a section of cocktails that are coffee-based. But these are not espresso martinis. They are something special."
When it comes to individual drink ideation, Calabrese starts with a base and opens the flood gates of experimentation. "I start every day with an espresso. In my mocha pot, I put the water and the coffee. So I thought, what would happen if I removed the water. What can this be done with? Beer? Champagne? Vermouth. I started to really have some fun. For me, when I start to create something, I like to think about a secret weapon." This was how his Breakfast Martini was born. This, Calabrese believes, is one of his best accomplishments. "The biggest dream of any bartender is to immortalize oneself with a great drink that in a 100 years time people are still enjoying."
"I have been doing this for 48 years, since 1966. I still love doing this. What I love, is what I have learned. It's all very well to be a great mixologist, but that does not give you the right to call yourself a good bartender. Mixing drinks and hospitality go together. That's where the soul comes from. We do a vivid, living theater," he says. Moreover, he describes a global movement. "The world has become quite small. When I started, behind my bar I had a handful of bottles. Now I have over 600 different types, some going as far back as 1770. The world is not as fast as we think, so these things are accessible. Especially because we communicate with each other." Calabrese believes the art of cocktail making is growing closer to that of cooking. He himself utilizes rare ingredients that only chefs use, but he maintains that over the top cocktails are not a sign of quality cocktail crafting.
Calabrese's personal favorite drink is the negroni. "I had to make a twist on the negroni. I am a negroni lover. It's one of the most difficult drinks because it is so simple. Lots of bartenders do not understand there are the three ingredients and the way they are placed together matters: the bitterness of Campari, the sweetness of Vermouth and the spicy dryness of gin." Calabrese played with this for a negroni unique to The Cromwell. He also modernized the Blood and Sand, by way of aging the individual components. "It's light and full of freshness, but it settles into richness. For me, this makes a good drink." And that's what Calabrese has been doing for years: making and envisioning drinks that are more than just good, they're memorable.
Lead image by David Graver, other images courtesy of The Cromwell